Gourmet Rhapsody by French writer Muriel Barbery is the fictional retelling of the life of a highly esteemed French food critic named Pierre Arthen. We begin the story as he is dying, and throughout the book we are shown different vantage points of who he is as a person through the eyes of the people that knew him. Revered by some, detested by others, he was a powerful man who exerted his influence and criticisms on the people of Paris.
Barbery is better known for her best selling book The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Although Gourmet Rhapsody was actually written before Elegance, it was translated and promoted after the second book had gained popularity in the US. These two novels are the first published work by Barbery, who previously taught philosophy in France. They contain many of the same characters, though the protagonists are different.
As Pierre is dying, he is searching for a flavor that he struggles to identify. Each chapter vacillates between his and other peoples recollections of his life. In the end, when he identifies what he had been longing for, the reader is left wondering what the true point of his search was.
I will not spoil the surprise for those of you who have not read it. Rather, I would like to pose a few questions that came up when my friends and I were talking about it this afternoon.
When you're reading this book, consider the dichotomy between gluttony and restraint, and the pursuit of pleasure vs. power. What was Pierre's main objective? Did he enjoy the subject of his writings?
Though some interpretations of his life implied that he only sought his own pleasure, how does that tie in with his genuine treatment of simpler, less complicated things and the world he wrote about in his reviews?
We were curious what had been lost in the translation from French to English, beyond the words themselves- did the writer (or the translator) give enough weight to conveying the French attitudes and values on food and culture to a non-French audience?
Was Barbery's florid use of language when describing foods genuine or was it a satire on French food writing in general? Could she have been trying to prove a point, or were her descriptions fodder for underlying philosophical clues to Pierre's motives?
Many of the criticisms payed to him were based on the amount of power he exerted in his relationships, but did he take away power from the people around him, or did those people blindly assign it to him without being conscious of it?
Closure came up several times when we were discussing this novel. Pierre gained closure in the end when he identified what he had been searching for, but not with his daughter. Was that more another example of him single mindedly seeking his own pleaure or not having an understanding of her feelings towards him? Did he consider his family, and what does it say about him as a person if he didn't? What effected him externally- who had the greatest impact on him, and did he respect them?
What did the final request represent? Is it a commentary on the instability of certainty? If it is not nostalgic, than what is at the core of it's impact on him during his dying moments?
What is the writer's point of view? What is she trying to say about the relationship between people and eachother, and people and food?