My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a tough act to follow, but I think she almost manages to do just that with this one. Terrifically reminiscent of the other book, the story takes place in the same building, and there is a fleeting glimpse of Renee the reticent concierge who was the protagonist of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Monsieur Arthens, a much-feared and revered food critic in equal measure, lays dying in his posh Paris apartment. Pierre Arthens has good reason for his repugnant reputation. He has behaved mostly appallingly with world’s most esteemed chefs, passing judgments, comments, and criticisms on the fruit of their labour. Condemning many to a life of ignominy with his words, he destroys (and sometimes creates) lifelong reputations in minutes. But as he lies on his deathbed, during these final hours, his mind seeks desperately for that elusive, sublime flavour, that he once experienced and never forgot. It is not his family, his lovers, or his possessions he looks to. The man who seemingly has it all, doesn’t. And this becomes his final pursuit.
That’s the story. Pithy. But this is no ordinary book. None of Barbery’s books are. The writing is extraordinary. It’s tight yet, generous in its descriptive power. It is erudite, yet convivial. It is a gossamer-light, endearing story that evokes empathy and compassion – but sharp as a tack and brusque when it no longer feels the need to explain itself to you further.
Here is a book so evocative, you can almost taste its flamboyance, its piquant sensuality, its succulence. Barbery is a seasoned gastronome of the literary arts and her story is not so much written as it is told. Because even as you read, you have the distinct feeling you are listening to someone. The accurate rendering of the tale is no mean feat for a translator, and in this case, you do not miss a beat. It is rare to read works that do not feel like translations; you do not have the sense that this is a story once removed. Such is the deftness and sheer skill at work – seamless.
I read in a review of the book, “Here, as in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery’s story celebrates life’s simple pleasures and sublime moments while condemning the arrogance and vulgarity of power.”
You are richer for having read Muriel Barbery. Let’s just leave it at that.