The Various Flavors of Coffee
A turn-of-the-century English novel, THE VARIOUS FLAVORS OF COFFEE captures the full aroma of life in 1896. Its hero is Robert Wallis, a rakish 22-year-old whose dream is to become a poet. Failing his preliminary examinations at Oxford, he frequents the Regent Street Café Royal near Piccadilly. Putting on the airs of a well-to-do dandy, he dresses in impeccable style --- complete with a carnation on his lapel --- and carries a cane. His favorite velvet waistcoat denotes him among the gentry of his day. However, he is nearly broke, having exhausted his father’s generosity, and a real job is the farthest thought from his mind.
Nevertheless, Wallis complains at the café when served coffee he considers “rusty.” Declared pernickety by the waiter, he expounds, “…a well-made cup of coffee is the proper beginning to an idle day. Its aroma beguiling, its taste is sweet…. it resembles, surely, the pleasures of love.”
Comparing the present brew to the taste of mud, with a faint aftertaste of rotten apricots, Wallis adds the unpleasant libation to his ongoing tab. A gnome-like gentleman joins him at the table, a middle-aged guy who is to change his life. Samuel Pinker, a coffee importer and distributor, is a man with a vision. He wishes to hire a writer, leaving Wallis with an invitation to meet at Pinker’s business address. Curiosity drives Wallis to keep the appointment.
Often pompous, Wallis is a character both to dislike and admire. His sexual appetites are voracious, often inviting complications to achieving his goals. However, his poet’s soul enables him to overcome adversity, change perspective and compel the reader to like him better. His taste for flavor is exquisite. Together with Pinker’s daughter, Emily, he writes the ledger for a catalog system for the coffees that Pinker’s company buys. In the process, Wallis falls in love with Emily but yields to baser temptations when tested. He finds himself banished to Africa, founding a coffee plantation.
There, Wallis surrenders to temptation when he befriends a slave girl, owned by Ibrahim Bey, a coffee broker. From that time forward, a downward swirl engulfs Wallis’s fortunes, both financially and personally. Confused, he finds that he can love two women at once, but practically speaking, it is an impossibility.
Wallis’s transformation, from a do-nothing young dolt to a mature man whose eyes have opened to the world’s realities, is accomplished in THE VARIOUS FLAVORS OF COFFEE. The most mundane coffee drinker should develop an appreciation for the beverage’s multifaceted blends of color, taste, aroma, robust or mild content, and varied types of beans.
A subplot develops Emily’s aspirations, quite the opposite from Wallis’s. The two tug and converge until a twig snaps. Emily’s feminist activities drag her down a path of politics, while Wallis deplores public servitude. He seeks to please the elder Pinker but is torn between his own romantic desires and the demands of a businessman. Coffee, its flavors and aromas, provides the stimulus to achieving his dreams.
Anthony Capella uses the form of letters, from Wallis to Emily, while in Africa to develop the plot line. These correspondences detail the landscape of the remote village where Wallis attempts to grow coffee beans and describes the intricate politics of village living, emphasizing the tribal difficulties that make his work nearly impossible. Natives both respect and resent his interference in their rural livelihood. Wallis writes to Philomena, Emily’s younger sister, maintaining a casual relationship with her.
English wording from the post-Victorian era causes an occasional stumble. But readers of THE VARIOUS FLAVORS OF COFFEE will gain knowledge of tasting syrup bled from rich beans, possibly representing modern brew methods. Coffee tasting is the vehicle by which Capella weaves a character-driven story, richly brewed and blended to fruition.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 24, 2011
The Various Flavors of Coffee
- Publication Date: August 26, 2008
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: Bantam
- ISBN-10: 0553807323
- ISBN-13: 9780553807325