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the complete review - fiction
Little Culinary Triumphs
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- French title: Petits plats de résistance
- Translated by Alison Anderson
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B- : entertaining bits but rather loose story, and too much emphasis on roguishness of gallery
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
The English title, Little Culinary Triumphs, the book's chapter-headings -- each a food or dish (or drink), i.e. menu items --, and one of the characters' ambitions suggest this might be a novel about the establishment of a restaurant, and that is certainly part of the story.
Indeed, several characters share a love and talent for cooking, and they come together to open a restaurant -- but there's a whole lot more going on too in this very busy story -- a whole collection of 'small dishes of resistance' (the original French title) that ranges far beyond the mere culinary .
The main character -- in a crowded field -- is Sandrine Cordier, a French civil servant working for Pôle emploi, a French (un)employment service where she decides over benefits, training opportunities, and jobs for the unemployed.
She doesn't much like her job, and she has little sympathy for her charges -- believing most of them to be lazy layabouts who want to continue to live off welfare (which is also how Pujol presents them).
Sandrine does have: "one great passion: food".
She is a marvelous cook, and she wanted to go into the business, but her parents pushed her into a much safer position in the government bureaucracy; still, she keeps eyeing a way out, and a way to fulfil her dream.
Sandrine is married, to Guillaume.
They have two children: the brilliant twelve-year-old Juliette, with an IQ of 172, a computer whiz who is already two years ahead at school, and her effete, fashion-loving fop of a brother, Aurélien.
Also living with the family is Guillaume's widowed mother, Marité.
When Antoine Lacuenta shows up at her office, Sandrine's first impression is that he is the usual: "Parasite, with a capital P", but his militant ecological stance and dedication to recycling give her some ideas, and she sets him up with an: "eccentric, expensive training course in organic cooking" -- training she then has him apply when her restaurant gets off the ground.
Meanwhile, Antoine lives in a workers' hostel -- "now they were known as social residences" -- where he organizes cooking competitions among the residents, who hail from all over the world and include very talented cooks, such as the Tamil Vairam Navaratnarajah (who will also find a place at the restaurant).
The run-down residence is in a prime Paris location, and real estate speculators have set their sights on it; the resulting battle over it -- culminating in some court proceedings that look, at first, all greased-wheel fixed but turn out to be vulnerable to other influences when many of the characters get together to counter it -- is another major plot-point.
Separately -- at first -- there's also Marcel Lacarrière, CEO of the Lacarrière group, publisher, for three generations, of Le Libéral, a newspaper: "firmly situated on the right" with a predominantly geriatric readership.
Business has been better -- with upstart competition Convictions really cutting into circulation.
Marcel's son and heir Laurent is something of a dud, but deputy CEO Luc Bricard keeps him in check, as his: "henchman and chaperone"; Luc also has some ideas how to cut into Convictions' business -- which leads to the rental of a space next to that which Sandrine has targeted for her restaurant, which eventually leads to Sandrine realizing that Marcel Lacarrière had a connection to none other than her mother-in-law Marité, way back when -- information she soon takes advantage of, to more or less everyone's benefit (except perhaps some Le Libéral employees, such as those in IT, as whiz-kid Juliette quickly makes her mark there).
Marité has her own business ideas, which computer-savvy Juliette can help realize -- even as they are quite age-inappropriate -- while Sandrine also has some ideas about how Le Libéral can play even better to its geriatric audience.
Convictions was doing well with its sexologist, Annabelle Villemin-Dubreuil -- who also comes with an unsual backstory --, and Le Libéral takes a page out of that playbook, with Annabelle eventually also moving into the restaurant-crowd orbit.
(Yes, Little Culinary Triumphs is a very, very busy novel.)
The novel hops from one group of characters to the next.
There are connections throughout -- often tenuous (never mind unlikely).
One of Guillaume's rackets, for example, is selling periodicals to colleagues that he steals when they are delivered to the newsdealers, a scam that has some overlap with Luc's rather inefficient way of targeting Convictions, or, for example, Sandrine realizes that Tamil cook Vairam has crossed her path before.
Over-full with characters (who are also often 'characters' ...), many of them also find themselves rather neglected, Pujol focusing on the unusual schemes rather than character-building or continuity; there's almost no sense of Guillaume as husband (or son), for example, and he feels largely like an appendage to the story, Pujol unable to properly integrate him into it -- and he's hardly the only such (non-)character.
The action leaps in time -- or skips along, jumping over smaller and larger periods --, as Pujol also largely ignores transitions and intermediate steps, not putting much effort into describing how many of the things got from A to B.
Mostly, Little Culinary Triumphs is a novel of manipulation, schemes, and cons.
Everyone is working an angle, everyone is out for a free lunch -- indeed, meal vouchers, in the form of restaurant coupons, and similar business expense-freebies feature surprisingly prominently in the novel.
Some of this is almost reasonable, like Marité's business plan or the final one to resuscitate Le Libéral, but even these rely on free or coöpted services.
So, for example, Sandrine's restaurant is only possible because she can take advantage of subsidies, zoning quirks, and the like: indeed, she tailors her business and location to maximize the free money she gets from the authorities -- somethings she has a knack for: "She'd put her application together shrewdly, and she'd hit the jackpot" (though even here she benefitted from inside help, someone: "who'd managed to put her file on top of the right pile": the playing fields in Pujol's world are never, ever completely fair; unfair advantages -- or trickery, deceit, or blackmail -- are the only way to beat the competition).
Worse are the numerous not so above-board cons and manipulations.
Padded expense accounts are the least of it, but typical of the prevailing attitude.
When Sandrine wants to get her hands on a space that becomes available in their building -- to house the mother-in-law -- she does everything she can to make sure no one else will be interested (including getting a cat to pee all over the space right before it's opened for public inspection).
The information she digs up about Marcel Lacarrière is mainly the result of enterprising detective-work, but her use of it still smacks a bit much of blackmail (even as Lacarrière benefits from her demands and suggestions) -- and she's not the only one to threaten someone with the exposure of dirty little secrets.
And there is some outright criminality too, from small- (and larger-)scale newspaper theft to the judge who carried out his duties: "with a minimum of involvement, a great deal of bad faith, and a healthy dose of dishonesty".
Even when Sandrine and co. turn the tables on those deserving of some come-uppance, their methods aren't really much more savory.
Pujol gets caught up and carried away by the roguishness of her colorful gallery, and it causes her to lose the plot -- or plots, which are then thin and rather implausibly tightly intertwined.
Too many characters stand by the wayside for too much of the novel, while Sandrine isn't made dominant enough a presence to carry the whole story, and too much is elided over, Pujol in too much of a hurry to relate the next scam without making nearly enough of every previous one.
There's decent fun along the way, but too much of Little Culinary Triumphs feels entirely too small and petty -- and the (im)moral universe the characters inhabit leaves a very sour taste.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 November 2018
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Little Culinary Triumphs:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of French literature
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About the Author:
Pascale Pujol is a French author.
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© 2018 the complete review
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