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The Debt to Pleasure

The Debt to Pleasure

by John Lanchester

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In this wickedly funny first novel, John Lanchester introduces us to Tarquin Winot, an Englishman of indeterminate age and very determined tastes. This confirmed voluptuary tells his life story through that most sublime of human pleasures -- food. Filled with poisonous opinions and disquisitions on everything from the erotics of dislike to the psychology of a menu,


In this wickedly funny first novel, John Lanchester introduces us to Tarquin Winot, an Englishman of indeterminate age and very determined tastes. This confirmed voluptuary tells his life story through that most sublime of human pleasures -- food. Filled with poisonous opinions and disquisitions on everything from the erotics of dislike to the psychology of a menu, Winot's tale peels away the layers of his past to reveal a sly wit and a quirky philosophy of taste and morality. But gradually, insidiously, the truth becomes unavoidable: Beneath a veneer of self-conscious charm lurks something uncompromisingly sinister. Only a master word-chef could serve up so luscious a satirical novel, and John Lanchester proves his undeniably refined skill in the literary kitchen.

"Addictively entertaining . . . intellectually provocative." (The New York Observer)

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Diabolically clever, Lanchester's debut novel more than lives up to its advance hoopla. This purported "unconventional'' cookbook-cum-memoir is a brilliant portrait of its narrator, a man whose professed gentility conceals a cold-blooded obsession and a sinister agenda. In a dry, supercilious manner, meant to display his soi-disant refined taste and superb erudition, Englishman and Francophile Tarquin Winot sets out to produce his physiologie du gout, a book that will include bona fide recipes (blini, fish stew), arcane culinary lore (the history of the peach), etymological disquisition (the origins of the words for coriander-from a variant of bedbug-and vodka) and fawning references to such culinary stars as Brillat-Savarin and Elizabeth David. Tarquin's commentary is larded with acidic bon mots, astringent asides and frequent invocations of figures ranging chronologically from Aeschylus to Auden, and culturally from James Bond to Luis Buuel. But what lies between the lines gives the narrative its insidious fascination, for in his casual references to the accidental deaths of servants, a neighbor and various family members, Tarquin gives away his true character, suggested by his early statement that "[t]here is an erotics of dislike.'' It is only gradually that the reader deciphers those clues and realizes that Tarquin is revealing far more than sibling rivalry when he insists that it is he-not his brother Bartholomew, a celebrated painter and sculptor-who has the true artist's genius. For those who appreciate linguistic virtuosity and light-fingered irony, who enjoy constructing a jigsaw puzzle out of tantalizing clues, this novel will be a lagniappe, fit for connoisseurs of fine food and writing. 100,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo; BOMC and QPB featured selections; first serial to Granta; audio to Audio Literature; foreign rights sold to 16 countries; author tour. (Apr.)
Library Journal
In his elegant and cunning first novel, Lanchester, deputy editor of The London Review of Books, disguises a sinister tale of fraternal jealousy as an innocent cookbook. Many of his ingredients and methods are indelibly linked to memories of his childhood and early life. As the stories and characters appear and reappear, subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in narrator Tarquin Winot's remembrances point to something slighly more threatening than a literary gastronome's memoir. The evocative connection between food and the past, and the act of writing and the past, is notable more for what it conceals than what it unearths. Lanchester's writing is to be savored, and the observations of his buffoonishly high-brow narrator merit more than one reading. Very highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/95.]Adam Mazmanian, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Lanchester's debut in the recent cookbook-cum-novel sweepstakes is a tour de force certain to please some highly, while others may be worn down by an incremental pace and unceasingly (if expertly) mannered tone.

What can be told without spoiling the tale—for there's a mystery here—is that the book is the story of a life, the life is that of an Englishman named Tarquin (originally Rodney) Winot, and Winot himself is the speaker of every carefully weighed sentence and exquisitely formed paragraph from start to end. A world-class chef and scholar extraordinaire (he calls himself an artist) of food and cuisine (not to mention manners, lore, and history in general), Winot hasn't lived a life that could be called underprivileged: With an ex-actress mother and an international- businessman father, both Winot and his older brother Bartholomew (who went on to become an internationally lionized artist and sculptor) were raised in a world of comfort and sophistication. Living both in London and Paris, the children had the benefit of cooks, nannies, and tutors—whose amusing quirks, oddities, and (above all) curious demises are narrated by Winot with customarily dry but unflaggingly amusing understatement and wit. As the book opens, the irrepressible Winot is driving through France, offering up opinions on the wines, foods, and art of Normandy and Brittany as he heads, ostensibly, for his house in Provence. He does reach the house, but things take on a deepened tone when he hooks up certain electronic spying devices, trails a young couple, and finally grants an interview—in which, to the reader, the increasingly mannered Winot at last reveals all—with a biographer- to-be of his illustrious brother.

From a raconteur second to none, then, a whole-earth monologue that lectures on subjects from pancakes to poison peaches, gives opinions on matters from clothing to curry, and touches on life's crises from cradle to grave. For the intellectual reader, a feast, complete with hint of decay.

From the Publisher
“A remarkable achievement.”
–Montreal Gazette

“A fully achieved work of art…Lanchester writes so stunningly well that one finds oneself laughing out loud at the perfection of his effects…a triumph.”
Independent (U.K.)

“Dazzling.…This beautifully written, boldly self-indulgent book manages to instruct and amuse even as it appalls.”
Globe and Mail

“Diabolically clever.”
Publishers Weekly

“Coruscatingly, horribly funny…Lanchester writes with beady-eyed exactitude and a fine aphoristic wit…Tarquin is a splendid creation.”
The Observer (U.K.)

“A masterly debut from a writer whose gifts border on the demonic.”
Chicago Tribune

“As if Brillat-Savarin and Nabokov met for lunch at a quiet dining room off the Rue Morgue. Entertaining and unexpected.”
–Richard Bachmann, A Different Drummer Books

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

John Lanchester was born in Hamburg in 1962. He was brought up in the Far East and educated in England. He is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books. The Debt to Pleasure (1996), won the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Prize, the Hawthornden Prize, and a Julia Child Award. His second novel, Mr. Phillips, was published in 2000. His most recent novel is Fragrant Harbour. He lives in London.

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