Muriel Barbery’s runaway bestseller (first in France, and later in the United States), The Elegance of the Hedgehog was an unlikely literary star. Now comes book two, and there is always a reluctance to believe the next book can be as great as the first. Yet, from the beginning Barbery has defied the odds, and Gourmet Rhapsody is as good, or perhaps even better in its own way, as that the first stunning success.
Like her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, is a story set in the same apartment building in a chic section of Paris (presided over by one-and-the-same concierge Renee, who makes a brief appearance here). However, this book focuses on another resident, Monsieur Pierre Arthens, a world renowned food critic, who, unfortunately, is dying.
What appears at first a bit confusing (although later readers will come to realize is pure writing genius on the part of Barbery) is that there are many narrators to the recollections of Arthens’s life. The story is told by his children, his wife, mistresses, his protégé, even his cat, and of course by Arthens himself, all in a reckoning of what his life has been. For Arthens, the essence of his quest in the final hours of life is a desire to find that singular taste that has defined his life, and experience it once more before taking his last breath.
Like many critics, Arthens has been a food snob and celebrant, all wrapped into one. He has made, ruined, and ultimately understood in a way few others could the finer workings of restaurants and what makes food great. He has done this, knowingly, at the expense of his family and children, of the women who loved him, and of the chefs at whose tables he has been feted. Yet he also brings a unique education to his palate, and readers who love food and its glories will revel in the descriptions presented here.
This is perhaps the most amazing thing that Barbery has done in her second book. She begins with stories laden with excesses of food, her descriptions as rich and multi-layered as any fine meal in a four-star restaurant. As the story progresses, and Arthens begins narrowing his search for the ultimate flavor at life’s end, however, so too does the reader experience a subtle shift toward ever-increasing simplicity in the writing style. As the author peels away the layers of Arthens’s life, the central points come more sharply into focus, the writing simplifies, and the meaning of his life is more exposed.
It’s a stunning tribute to Barbery’s skill as a writer that not only can she rise above her successful first book, but she has replaced it with something even more dazzling, first by drenching her readers in the beauty and abundance of language, and then by slowly stripping away the excess to the core of the saga. It’s a beautifully written book, a compelling story, and a fine point she presents to readers about life and happiness. Barbery is going to have a hard time topping herself the next time around, yet one feels sure there is more greatness to come.