Tuesday, September 25, 2012
REVIEW: Elza's Kitchen, by Marc Fitten
Elza's Kitchen is author Marc Fitten's second novel, his followup to 2009's delightful Valeria's Last Stand. Elza is also set in Hungary after the fall of Communism, but this time the story centers on a middle-aged chef whose life is about to change, for reasons as much to do with changing economics as changing emotions.
Elza runs a successful restaurant in the Hungarian town of Delibab; she serves expertly prepared classic Hungarian dishes to a large crowd of regulars. Over time she's refined her recipes and knows just how to keep her customers coming back. But she's become dissatisfied. For one thing, she craves greater recognition in the cooking world. She enlists her old cooking professors to get the attention of a famous critic, hoping to persuade him to visit and review her restaurant. At the same time, she ends a casual relationship of longstanding with her sous chef; when he becomes smitten with the pretty young pastry chef, things get out of control in her kitchen as well as in her life. And she's got to contend with a family of Gypsies who beg outside the restaurant, one of whom will come to play a crucial role in her drama.
Like Valeria's Last Stand, Fitten writes Elza in a folk-tale-like style, giving names to the women and naming (most of) the men by their professions. The sous chef is The Sous Chef; the critic is The Critic. The only exception is the little Gypsy boy Elza accidentally injures; little Pisti gets a name. He also shows the growing influence of capitalism on Hungarian society by endowing the pastry chef Dora with a hungry appetite for business, and a good head for it, too. The partnership between the Sous Chef and Dora is as much about pragmatics as emotion. Elza is a wonderful cook but has no head for business, and the reception she gets from the Critic leaves her flummoxed and looking for a new direction. Will she find one?
I really enjoyed Elza's Kitchen. Elza is a touchy, difficult woman but you'll be rooting for her to come from behind and pull out a victory after all. I think she starts to regain her stride when she realizes that she doesn't have to compete with her former lover and his new fiancee, that there's room enough for both of them to succeed in meaningful ways. It's a nice lesson to take from this well-crafted and thoughtful meditation on love and change and finding your strengths just when things look their bleakest.
Click here for my interview with author Marc Fitten!
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.