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Gourmet Rhapsody [Paperback]

Muriel Barbery , Alison Anderson
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Aug. 25 2009
In the heart of Paris, in the posh building made famous in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the greatest food critic in the world is dying. Revered by some and reviled by many, Monsieur Pierre Arthens has been lording it over the world's most esteemed chefs for years, passing judgment on their creations, deciding their fates with a stroke of his pen, destroying and building reputations on a whim. But now, during these his final hours, his mind has turned to simpler things. He is desperately searching for that singular flavor, that sublime something once sampled, never forgotten, the Flavor par excellence. Indeed, this flamboyant and self-absorbed man desires only one thing before he dies: one last taste.

Thus begins a charming voyage that traces the career of Monsieur Arthens from childhood to maturity across a celebration of all manner of culinary delights. Alternating with the voice of the supercilious Arthens is a chorus belonging to his acquaintances and familiars--relatives, lovers, a would-be protégé, even a cat. Each will have his or her say about Monsieur Arthens, a man who has inspired only extreme emotions in people. Here, as in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery's story celebrates life's simple pleasures and sublime moments while condemning the arrogance and vulgarity of power.


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Review

“Narrated beautifully . . .”
Library Journal

“The moment of revelation pack[s] a mighty wallop.”
Providence Journal

“ A chorus of talented voices alternates in delivering a stark portrait of this master of French cuisine.”
      —AudioFile [Earphones Award Winner]

“A chorus of talented voices alternates in delivering a stark portrait of this master of French cuisine.”
       —AudioFile [Earphones Award Winner]

“The moment of revelation pack[s] a mighty wallop.”
       —Providence Journal

“Narrated beautifully . . .”
       —Library Journal --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

About the Author

Muriel Barbery was born in 1969 in Casablanca. She studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and worked for many years as a philosophy teacher in France. Her New York Times bestselling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa Editions 2008) has been published in over twenty languages. Barbery now lives in Japan and is working on a third novel.

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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mouth Watering Feb. 12 2010
By Toni Osborne TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This novel is quite original, it is richly written to offer a character study of a dying man's last thoughts. It is a very short novel that provides a mix of philosophy peppered with humour and spiced with culinary vignettes.

The protagonist is Pierre Arthens, a food critic, given forty eight hours to live by his cardiologist. On his death bed surrounded by his dear ones, Pierre makes a desperate effort to reminisce his favourite moments in life, he does so by describing his most passionate experiences in the art of cooking and the ultimate stimulation of ones taste buds.

Of course food is the central point of this novel, Ms Barbery writes eloquently about the gastronomic exuberance of a person that claims to be the best food critic in the world. The rapturous food passages are lusciously mouth-watering. The short chapters are told from various perspectives of Arthens' entourage (including pets), his doctor, his lovers and Renée (a character in the novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog") and how his life has impacted them. The narrative flips back and forth between the bedridden maestro and his friends and their fond memories of the past.

The poetic writing takes the reader on a journey into one of the pleasures of life.
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Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  73 reviews
67 of 72 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dazzling... July 27 2009
By John P. Jones III - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Fulgurant.

Succulence annoncée. Succulence foretold.

Over half a year ago I posted at Amazon the following review of the French version of this work, and it is indeed a pleasure to have read the English version now, thanks to the Vine program. In retrospect, and after having read the English version, I still would not change a word of the review:

I first became acquainted with Ms. Barbery's work through Amazon's "Vine" program, receiving a copy of her new book, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" to review. I was quite impressed, rated it 5-stars, and posted a review under the Vine program. I decided to see what else she had written, and purchased this book while in France in October.

The novel concerns the greatest critic of the culinary world, the "Pope of Gastronomy." Early in the story, one is told that he will die tomorrow. It is his history, and that of his family, acquaintances, even his pets. Ms. Barbery tells the story in 29 separate vignettes, alternating between the culinary critic (whose name we finally learn towards the end) and all the other characters. A literary technique that works well, despite the multitude of view points, which she sharply reduced in "The Elegance of the Hedgehog." Her style is rich and dense, like a wonderful chocolate éclair. Writing to be savored. The novel "works" on several different dimensions. There are the human relation aspects, a man who is at the epitome of his field, estranged from most of his family - his most caring relationship is with the servant who is now head of the household, and his pets. His wife, Anna, is resigned to his philandering. In the vignettes told by his daughter, Laura, and his granddaughter, Lotte, one gain's insight into his dysfunctional character. There is a wonderful chapter on how he first entered the ranks of a food critic, impressing a to-be mentor with the right answer, thus, "the king is dead, long live the king." One of the central characters in "The Elegance...", Renee, the concierge, plays a cameo role in this novel, a tantalizing foreshadowing...

And the novel is very much about the French concern on what is placed into the stomach, and the pleasure derived in the process. There are some wonderful meals described: in Morocco, along the beach; a chance invitation to a home meal in Normandy; the importance of bread; the sorbets of his grandmother whose correct description launched his career; the pleasure of fish; and would any book on gastronomy be complete without venturing into Japanese cuisine, with the art of serving raw food? The "surprise" at the end involves a turn towards the crasser aspects of commercial food.... Alas.

Alas, also, my French is not good enough to understand why Ms. Barbery entitled her book "Une Gourmandise" as opposed to "Un Gourmand." Clearly an English translation of the book should be provided. She is a superlative writer, with deep insights into the human condition. Perhaps others will address why the title is in the feminine

Ms. Barbery still has much to tell us, and I eagerly await.
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Having now concluded the English version, there are so numerous other aspects of the novel that I feel worth highlighting, including the career paths succinctly outlined for the physician, Chabrot; the viewpoints of his mistress, "Venus" and the street-person, Gegene; and the description how mayonnaise is deeply sexual.

In addition, Barbery captured the essence of the French concept of "terroir":

"The only word that mattered to me at the time was terroir--but today I know that a terroir only exists by virtue of one's childhood mythology, and that if we have invented these worlds of tradition rooted deep in the land and identity of a region, it is because we want to solidify and objectify the magical, vanished years that preceded the horror of becoming an adult."

And on the essence of writing itself, Barbery has the main character say:

"What is writing, no matter how lavish the pieces, if it says nothing of the truth, cares little for the heart, and is merely subservient to the pleasure of showing one's brilliance?"

Finally, concerning the quality of the translation, it would be most presumptuous for me to comment, since "je me debrouille," I get by, but it seems that the English is as precise, lively and readable as the original. Kudos to Ms. Anderson.

A wonderful read, to be savo(u)red again, in whatever language.
33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars No rapture in this Rhapsody for this reader, sad to say.. July 23 2009
By Sharon Isch - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
The two main things to be said for this novel are that (1) it's very short and (2) you can see in it early glimmerings of the talent that, some six years later, would create my favorite book of 2008, the brilliant novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog."

What you won't find here is anybody to care about.

Like "Hedgehog" it is told in short chapters (only two of them as long as 7 pages) with alternating narrators. But this one has one principal narrator--France's boorish and unlikable leading restaurant critic who's been given 48 hours to live and will use that time to try to summon up an elusive flavor from out of his past. The shorter in-between chapters each have different narrators offering their perspectives on the dying man: his children, his wife, his nephew, his doctor, his cleaning lady, his dog, his cat, a mistress, a protege and two characters who will eventually turn up again in "Hedgehog"--Renee, the concierge, and Gegene, the beggar on the corner.

I seriously doubt many readers will get involved enough in this gustatory memoir to care if our narrator finds that flavor or not. And I can see why this book only got an English translation after "Hedgehog" got such rave reviews in America. In my review of "Hedgehog" I said five stars weren't enough. With this one I found three stars too many.

Meantime...Any other readers here as puzzled as I am over the narrator's notion that Americans butter their bread before they toast it?
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Rhapsody en bleu Aug. 18 2009
By Leonard Fleisig - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Pierre Arthens is a thoroughly loathsome man. His ego and arrogance is commensurate with his reputation as one of the world's great food critics. His writing and his persona has redefined the role of food critic in French society. He is also dying. His physician has told him he has 48 hours to live. In the time he has left to him Arthens is determined to remember that one flavor, that one taste sensation that could be said to have defined his life.

Lying on his death-bed in his elegant Paris apartment, Arthens reaches back in time trying to recall moments in time and a `tastes' in time that may mark that one great flavor. Each brief memory (in the form of a short chapter) is followed by the reflections of those who have for better or worse, usually worse, have had dealings with Arthens. These include his neglected wife, his children, a nephew, cooks, other food critics, restaurateurs, and even his cat and a small piece of artwork. That in summary is the plot and structure of Muriel Barbery's "Gourmet Rhapsody".

"Gourmet Rhapsody" was Barbery's first novel, published in France in 2000. It set in the same building as a later work, "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". Hedgehog was published in English by Europa Editions in 2008 to great critical and popular acclaim. Subsequently, Europa decided to translate and publish "Gourmet Rhapsody". I think the fact that Gourmet Rhapsody was her first book is apparent. It is not nearly as polished and does not flow nearly as smoothly as Hedgehog. However, the book is still very much worth reading and if I had read it before Hedgehog I would have believed it showed a great deal of promise.

On the plus side: Barbery's writing is very fluid and insightful. There are passages that are just dazzling. She manages to take a thoroughly unlikable main character and wrap a story around him that is well written and absorbing. At the same time, Arthens' memories, even though they center on his lifetime fascination with food, do manage to tell the story of a life and even if one never comes to admire Arthens the man I did get a feel for the life he led.

On the minus side: the splicing in of other characters' memories, while an interesting artifice just didn't hold up as I think it was intended. It may be that as arrogant and pompous as Athens was, he certainly seemed aware of it and seemed to have a sense of self-reflection that was one redeeming feature. However, because the vignettes of the long suffering wife, the children, and others were so fleeting their stories conveyed little more than their sense of suffering at the hands of Arthens. That lack of investment in these drive-by characters really makes fully half of the book simply nothing more than an echo chamber to bring us back to Arthens.

Ultimately, I think the plusses, specifically Barbery's writing outweighs the minuses and I have no problems recommending "Gourmet Rhapsody" to others. I would suggest, however, that it would be best to read "Gourmet Rhapsody" before turning to "Elegance of the Hedgehog". That way, the reader would be introduced to a good author's good first book followed by a more eloquent and sophisticated follow-up. L. Fleisig
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars unusual but engaging March 20 2011
By bookmagic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is not a long novel, but it is very filling. Maitre, the world's greatest food critic has found out that he is going to die. As he lies in bed, he craves a particular flavor, but can not recall which one. The chapters alternate between his recollections of memories around varies foods: meat, fish, bread, etc, and the thoughts of those around him on the fact that he is dying. Only his cat and wife seem to regret his death. His children and many others, including a homeless man on the street, have a love/hate relationship with Maitre. Their thought are only a couple of pages in between Maitre's memories of experiences with food.

my review: This was a beautifully written book. The chapters where Maitre descibes his childhood associations with particular foods, especially his grandmother's cooking are lush and descriptive. The places he visited hold as much meaning for him as the food he savored.

I bought The Elegance of The Hedgehog by Barbery the day it was released. But I have yet to read it. Now, after reading this lovely story, I will make an effort to get to it much sooner. I really enjoyed the author's writing.

rating 4.5/5
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars AN APPETIZER, NOT A MAIN COURSE Nov. 3 2009
By David Keymer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If Barbery's previous novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008), is like the main course OF an elegant French meal, Rhapsody is a plate of hors d'oeuvres, delicious and quick to go down the throat, but ultimately not enough for a meal. This isn't to say anything is bad about the book, it's delightful, but to admit that it's more a jeu d'esprit, a writer's game, than it is a full fledged work of fiction.

In this slim novel, Barbery displays many of the same preoccupations as in Elegance -how people treat each other, what constitutes refinement, appreciation love of fine things (in this book, principally food), the price on person pays for another person's pleasure. And as in the other book, Barbery (or rather, Barbery and her translator, who is really really good) writes fluidly and elegantly and with continuing grace.

Rhapsody narrates the dying thoughts of the great gourmand (he thinks he's a gourmet but he's really a gourmand) M. Pierre Arthens, France's premier food critic, as he hunts through memories for the primal food taste. Arthens has been both angel and beast in his life: a self-centered bully who has terrorized and exploited all the people around him but is ultimately redeemed by his pure love of and respect for food. Interspersed with the chapters narrating Arthens' thoughts are short chapters narrating the inner monologues of the people he has misused.

The book is very clever, and exceptionally well written, but it all seems a bit ... frail. There isn't much substance in it. But take it as an appetizer, and then you can't go wrong nibbling on it.
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