Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is not a novel to be read for plot. It’s an exercise in style and focus, with gorgeous results.
Gourmet Rhapsody takes place over the course of the last day of one man’s life, with musings from the man on his deathbed anchoring chapters from numerous other points of view, including the man’s wife, his maid, a statue in his office, his cat, his children, and a homeless man. The man at the center of the novel is Pierre Arthens, a world-renowned food critic. Monsieur Arthens had fame and wealth, but — apart from food — very little happiness. His marriage is frigid, his children are estranged, and the only purely loving relationship he has is with his favorite cat. In short, Arthens is leaving a world that will likely not mourn him. This is not what troubles him, however. In his final hours, he is obsessed with rediscovering some forgotten food, a flavor that he cannot identify but that surpasses all others.
The chapters alternate between those from the viewpoint of Monsieur Arthens and those from the viewpoints of the myriad people (and animals, and objects) who know him. Arthens’ chapters focus on food foremost, with the people that provided the meals only in the background. The descriptions of the foods he ate and loved are lusciously detailed, focused on flavors, sensations, and emotions. Barbery’s style and tone are reverent, painting scenes and meals with exquisite care; more than once I found myself so drawn in that I actually closed my eyes to better experience the dishes that Barbery’s words brought to life.
The chapters from the others’ point of view are focused on Arthens as a person, or more specifically, his many glaring faults and majestic failings. These chapters are shorter, more emotionally driven characterizations. There is pain and grief, as well as moments of tenderness. Many of the brief narrators revile the man, and even those that care for him do so with reservations. The reader learns much about Arthens that then colors the chapters from his point of view, leading the reader to feel that they begin to understand him, even if they don’t like him.
Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody is a must for foodies. I do consider myself a bit of a foodie, though I don’t have the funds to go as far into that world as I’d like. But whether you’re an epicure or not, this short novel is certainly worth a read. It may not be for everyone (as I mentioned, the entirety of the plot focuses on one man’s struggle to remember a taste he once experienced), but I do think that many readers would enjoy the simplicity and beauty Barbery has created. Especially for those who read and loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog (like this girl right here!), this novel is not to be missed.