Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Review: THE LAST BANQUET, by Jonathan Grimwood
The Last Banquet is a novel set in the fading days of ancien regime France; Jean-Marie d'Aumont comes from an aristocratic line but his parents are dead, starved to death because the law forbids them to work. He has been placed in a school for the aristocracy, where he mixes with those above and beneath his own station, wealthier boys of the nobility and nouveaux riches alike who will become lifelong friends and rivals in different ways. But right from the start Jean-Marie is different, marked out by his obsession with all things gustatory.
Emile is his first friend, a wealthy boy of unclear lineage whom the other boys do not fully accept. Jean-Marie comes to see that friends like Charlot, a duke's son, will get him farther in life. When Charlot invites Jean-Marie to his chateau, Jean-Marie fixes his attentions on pretty Virginie, Charlot's sister, and saves her life. In the mean time Jean-Marie begins more studied experiments with food and eating, and he records many of his recipes in this book, which comprise his memoirs and which we realize he is writing near the end of his life.
Jean-Marie's growth and life span the end of the old days, before the revolution swept away the aristocratic way of life. He sees filth and corruption at the highest levels of society, and eventually finds love and peace in a place he never expected. He marries, has children, and watches one of his children die. He grows as an artist of food and corresponds with many of the leading minds of his generation. His trajectory mirrors that of his milieu, and their end is his end.
The Last Banquet is the first hardcover novel published by Europa which is known for its attractive and distinctive French-flapped paperbacks. It's a very strong novel that I think Francophiles and foodies will enjoy along with historical-fiction readers. Jean-Marie's adventures are fun to follow, picaresque in style as it were without a strong overarching plot- like a fictional biography, and there is sweetness and humor mixed in with the history, melodrama and action. I'm not sure I want to try too many of the book's recipes, but I found The Last Banquet to be a fine, meaty literary meal.
This is my 14th book for the 2013 Europa Challenge.
FTC Disclosure: I received a copy for review from Europa Editions.