Review

Gourmet Rhapsody

by Muriel Barbery

This first novel by the acclaimed French author of THE ELEGANCE
OF THE HEDGEHOG arrives in American hands after the success of that
sublime blend of philosophy and social satire, and it shares
several common characters.

Pierre Arthens, the imperious food critic who lives (and dies)
at 17 Rue Grenelle, is the focal point of GOURMET RHAPSODY, and
most of the story comes to us in his fussy, elegiac voice. On being
informed that he has only days to live, he is gripped by the
overwhelming desire to remember a particular taste that both haunts
and eludes him. This prompts a series of fevered reminiscences
about his introductions to various foods and drink, from the
grilled sardines prepared by his grandfather in Brittany to the
orange sorbet prepared by a lover, always ending in some variation
of “but that’s not quite it!” In between
these rhapsodies (for that is truly what they are), bit players in
Arthens’s life --- his favored nephew Jean, his unhappy
children, his distraught wife, his protégés, and even his
concierge Renée --- have their say about the great man, and
much of what they have to say is resentful and bitter.

Which would be no surprise to Arthens. He has made his
reputation on his discernment, and he reserves his passion and
respect foremost for it above all. If you are the sort who happily
downs a PB & J every day for lunch, you may not be fascinated
by his talent, but the many “foodies” among us may
eagerly devour passages like the following: “Yes, it is like
a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of
both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows
it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.” A
later description of a chance lunch on a French country farm fills
every sense; you almost taste the oysters “cold and salty,
with neither lemon nor seasoning,” and the “two thin
slices of raw smoked ham, silky and supple along languid folds,
some salted butter, a hunk of bread.” Are we hungry yet?

If this will fill you up, then comparisons between THE ELEGANCE
OF THE HEDGEHOG and GOURMET RHAPSODY may not trouble you too much.
Certainly Muriel Barbery squeezes in some social insight, such as
this gem from a grandchild of Arthens, reflecting on a remembered
visit to her grandfather’s house: “I know that
they’re all unhappy because nobody loves the right person the
way they should and because they don’t understand that
it’s really their own self they’re mad at.”

But this is Arthens’s story, and he isn’t nearly as
likable as either Renée or Paloma from THE ELEGANCE OF THE
HEDGEHOG. I enjoyed this novel, but for me the resolution was
somewhat of a disappointment. Even as Arthens finally remembers the
taste he is dying for, he reveals both his own utter vanity and
perhaps the folly of making too much of any mere food.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 22, 2011

Gourmet Rhapsody
by Muriel Barbery

  • Publication Date: August 25, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Europa Editions
  • ISBN-10: 1933372958
  • ISBN-13: 9781933372952