Muriel Barbery knows her way around words. With her debut The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I quickly fell in love with her sentences, taking time to draw the vocabulary along as she bent to describe the mundane musings of her characters. Gourmet is not a sequel in any way to Elegance, the only overlap the two sharing the upper-class residence of Rue de Grenelle, and therefore not a necessary requirement prior to diving into Gourment, though I recommend reading it just the same however the order you choose.
For lack of a stronger opening and in the desire to use the pun as it’s been knocking around for a time: Gourmet Rhapsody is a feast. Like Elegance before it, Barbery uses language in perfected amounts, a chef knowing by feel when to teaspoon, when to pinch, when to add this quarter cup or that. The story follows the memories of a dying food critic by the name of Pierre Arthens as he fights to recollect a particular food/moment pairing he’s forgotten in all his years reviewing. Chapters oscillate from Pierre to other members of Rue de Grenelle, family members, mistresses, a cat, all weighing in on the critic’s life choices (or lack thereof). In Pierre’s trips through time we are given one view, that of a man in love with food, with himself, with the richness of both found moments and being in the moment, of a man zealous for the weight of experience. And in others, the small recollections from those around him painting the picture of a distant man often feared by his loved ones, cold to a fault and without care of his callousness, of a man so in love with his own inflated narcissistic royalty he uses and casts so many aside as though they were little more than pieces of litter just on the fringe of his vision. The best mirroring of these seemingly polar biographies is found first in the discussions of his granddaughter Lotte who sees him as a frightening and unhappy figure, one who “doesn’t like stories,” as she puts it laid then against a trip of Pierre’s in which he became lost while searching for a inn where he happened upon a group of five sharing lunch on their farm outside, a moment Pierre was invited to share in. Here there is laughter, camaraderie, the binding experience of a meal in which strangers become somehow intimate friends. The darkness in Barbery’s tale is how much of a double-life Pierre lived, how the zealous moments are so contra to the unhappiness left in his home wake.
For those of you who have seen Ratatouille, you are no doubt familiar with how Remy describes food as having shape. In the same way does Pierre work his mouth around a palette of flavors unleashing a string of vivid syllables to contextualize his favorite dish and strongest memory. As a tool to further Pierre’s ego, Barberry writes deftly, though there are times the ruminations can feel too much, like the meals saturated in the butters and the creams and the spices Barbery heaps language onto Pierre’s pen past a plate’s breaking point. Though appropriate to his voice, I could find myself detaching from the experience the further into the critic’s world I waded, needing to come up for air after the barrage of mouthfuls.
Gourmet Rhapsody is a loaded pastry: bite-sized and heavy.