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Posted May 23, 2008
With a cover featuring prominent blurbs by Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper's Daughter) and Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club), it is clear that the publisher hopes to capture the commercial domestic fiction market with the English translation of his French novel. Indeed, it is easy enough to describe Chez Moi as a charming and touching read. However, this novel also contains a dash of philosophy that gives it a subtler taste than its American counterparts. The narrator is Myriam, 43, who has set up her own hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a quiet part of Paris, on a bank loan she obtained with the help of a forged hospitality training certificate. Chez Moi (meaning 'my place') is literally Myriam's home - as she can't afford a separate place to live, she spends her nights in the restaurant, sleeping on a bench and bathing in its giant metal sink. Gifted at cooking but hopeless at pretty much everything else it takes to run a restaurant, she initially drowns under a heap of unpaid bills. Fortunately, she is pulled from the brink of bankruptcy with the miraculous arrival of the orphaned Ben, an idealistic and self-sufficient political science student who becomes her indispensable waiter and accountant. As she feeds an ever-increasing clientele, who range from her awkward florist neighbour to the two vivacious schoolgirls who were her first customers, readers find out that her air of rootlessness is a result of her desire to abandon her dark past. This past includes emotional estrangements from her husband and son, a spectacular scandal that leads her to flee her home, and the healing purgatory that was her time as the in-house cook for a small travelling circus. The dream-like series of scenes both past and present is peopled with characters who seem too perfect or convenient to be real, from the indomitable Ben to the reassuringly solid farmer-grocer Ali to Hugom, her angelic son. But you soon realise that being bothered by this two-dimensionality is quite beside the point, as these characters largely serve as symbols or plot devices which allow the author to flesh out Myriam's own issues. She struggles with ideas of choice versus fatalism and the nature of truth, the latter even turning up as the philosophy class question that torments her two schoolgirl customers. The author handles these introspective interludes with a light and whimsical touch: For example, repeated references to Alice In Wonderland - 'too small, too big, my life keeps changing proportions and I'm never the right size for what I m trying to do' - culminate in the appearance of a character actually bearing a large mushroom. Meanwhile, cooking is the means by which she expresses and defines herself, and foodies will love how strongly she identifies with her gastronomical creations. Take the first meal she offers someone in her restaurant: 'I look at him and think he's feeding off me because I put all of myself into that first tart, that inaugural dessert.' Don't read this book on an empty stomach better yet, take yourself to a favourite cafe and allow yourself to indulge along with the printed word. Her descriptions of food are exquisite, from a shin of veal 'pale as a ballerina's tutu', to a carrot and walnut cake, with its 'unctous lemon-flavoured icing', it's 'grainy sponge' and finally 'the delicate alloy of cinnamon and brown sugar'. While the conventionally sweet ending might leave some craving something more substantial, the musings on love and relationships that come before still provide much food for thought.
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Posted November 5, 2008
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Make yourself at home in Chez Moi
Agnes Desarthe's Chez Moi is a classic novel in the style of Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies and Chocolat that revels in the sensual and emotional power of truly great food. Its narrator, Myriam, is a talented cook with a forged resume and a past tainted with disaster. At 43, Myriam feels that her life (including a failed attempt at motherhood) has been a failure, and her dearth of organizational abilities always leaves her in a bind. Her latest attempt is to open a restaurant with a staff of one: she doesn't want to hire waiters, cooks, or dishwashers, and she has no idea how a restaurant is run. <BR/><BR/>Despite a life tainted with tragedies, Myriam whips up extraordinary culinary concoctions that delight her audience. She shields herself from emotion with food, willing herself to forget about painful past betrayals and near-misses. But her small restaurant, which she's christened Chez Moi ("My house"), is her home, for she can't afford to rent an apartment and instead sleeps on the donated banquette and bathes in the large stainless steel sink. <BR/><BR/>The descriptions of food are heady and sensual, from delicate sauces to silken desserts. Ever practical, Myriam reuses things rather than throwing them out, and comes up with one menu for adults, another to cater to children. <BR/><BR/>Despite her lack of advertising (Chez Moi doesn't even have a sign proclaiming it's a restaurant), her creations attract a regular crowd of schoolgirls, young children, and workers. The neighboring florist Vincent, with breath that could kill an elephant, expresses romantic interest in her. When the talented waiter Ben appears, he helps Myriam by creating a website and bringing customers (and a catering business). Myriam is fascinated by Ben's physical awkwardness (he seems to have some mild physical impairment) and his asexuality (finally, a strong asexual character whose personality isn't defined by his asexuality!), his broad range of knowledge, and his talent in the kitchen. Ben puts Myriam in touch with a romantic figure from her past, and this has earth-shattering consequences for the timid, haunted Myriam. <BR/><BR/>There are mentions of Myriam's Jewishness, although fleeting, and of her family: successful little brother Charles, an eccentric aunt, and her disapproving parents, and the role that all of these characters have played in her development. Myriam's past failures threaten to engulf her, until her new network of co-workers and friends gives her the ability to move on. <BR/><BR/>Beautifully told, this portrait of a haunted woman and her talent in the kitchen will be sure to delight fans of Joanne Harris and Laura Esquivel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 29, 2009
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