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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gourmet Rhapsody
(The Gourmet)

Muriel Barbery

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To purchase Gourmet Rhapsody

Title: Gourmet Rhapsody
Author: Muriel Barbery
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 156 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Gourmet Rhapsody - US
The Gourmet - UK
Gourmet Rhapsody - Canada
Une gourmandise - Canada
The Gourmet - India
Une gourmandise - France
Die letzte Delikatesse - Deutschland
Estasi culinarie - Italia
  • French title: Une gourmandise
  • US title: Gourmet Rhapsody
  • UK title: The Gourmet
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, vivid food-centric tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 3/9/2009 Yvonne Zipp
Financial Times . 14/9/2009 Michael Steinberger
The Globe and Mail . 28/8/2009 Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
The New Yorker . 28/9/2009 .
Salon . 11/9/2009 Tommy Wallach
San Francisco Chronicle . 20/9/2009 Heller McAlpin
. 11/10/2009 Trevor Lewis

  From the Reviews:
  • "While Gourmet Rhapsody is unlikely to appeal to as wide a reading swath as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery’s descriptions should have foodies salivating." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor

  • "(I)t is slender in every sense; characters and themes are barely introduced before they cede the stage. (...) The Gourmet serves up a few tasty morsels but is otherwise pretty thin gruel." - Michael Steinberger, Financial Times

  • "The way in which Barbery is light is not Japanese in feel at all. Where Ogawa is incandescent, Barbery is opaque and, on occasion, pseudo-intellectual. What Barbery can be is whimsical, an entirely different and (to me) less appealing sort of lightness altogether." - Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Globe & Mail

  • "This trifle of a tale preceded Barbery’s best-seller The Elegance of the Hedgehog in France but follows it in publication here, which is rather like serving the amuse-bouche after the entrée. (...) Still, Barbery’s invocations of gustatory pleasure are seductive." - The New Yorker

  • "Barbery’s triumph is in managing to tell his story while simultaneously conveying his passion. Like any good work of food writing, one puts it down a little bit hungry." - Tommy Wallach, Salon

  • "Comparing the often unsubtle Gourmet Rhapsody to the elegantly satiric The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it becomes clear how much Barbery learned in the six years between her two novels: to integrate philosophy seamlessly into a heart-tugging narrative, to infuse her characters with humanity and, like the best chefs, to use seasoning judiciously." - Heller McAlpin, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "While a recipe may look mouthwatering on the page, the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating, which in the case of Barbery’s novel is a largely unappetising experience. (...) Although Barbery writes sensuously about food, the same could be said of many cookbooks, and despite a generous soupçon of wit, she stints on a vital ingredient: human warmth." - Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The gourmet of the title(s) is Pierre Arthens, who declares with the utmost confidence: "I am the greatest food critic in the world". Unfortunately, that no longer does him any good: his doctor has told him he has forty-eight hours to live and then his cardiac insufficiency will do him in. He is not too concerned about that, but he does have on final ambition: to recall the one taste that really mattered:

I know that this particular flavor is the first and ultimate truth of my entire life, and that it holds the key to a heart that I have since silenced.
       Unfortunately, the flavor and the food has slipped his mind -- slipped off the tip of his tongue, as it were -- and he now makes a last, desperate effort to recall it. He does so by going through the tastes of his life, as the book alternates short chapters between his reminiscences and the observations of those who know him -- his family, followers, even his cat, as well as a small alabaster statue.
       The action takes place in a house on Rue de Grenelle; among the characters who give testimony is the concierge there, Renée -- who will assume a much more prominent role in Barbery's bestselling follow-up, set in the same building, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
       Food is obviously central here, as the gourmet retraces meals and unique tastes he's found over the decades, and Barbery does the food-writing evocatively well. There's more to it, too, as the gourmet is a man who has failed his family -- and certainly his wife -- and now finds it is too late to change anything. Self-centered as he is, what is important to him in these dying hours is making a sort of peace with himself -- by retrieving that magical, lost taste -- rather than others.
       It is a very short novel, and Barbery offers quite a mix of moral and philosophical issues that he faced during his life -- and now, as he and others confront his mortality with the clock ticking very prominently in the background -- in the quick rotation of vignettes from his life, as seen by him (focused on the meals) and others (often focused on other aspects of his life).
       As one person suggests:
Food was just a pretext, perhaps even a way of escaping, of fleeing what his goldsmith's talent might bring to light: the exact tenor of his emotions, the harshness and suffering, and the failure, in the end ... Thus, where his genius might have enabled him to dissect for posterity and for himself the various feelings which were troubling him, he lost his way along secondary paths, convinced that he ought to say what was incidental, and not essential. Such a waste. Heartbreaking.
       Hence, appropriately enough, it will be heart-failure that does him in ..... And his final act is to retreat into food again -- the incidental (even as he has allowed it to become so central in his life).
       Gourmet Rhapsody is something of a mystery-novel, as the protagonist plays detective, trying to summon up a memory of that lost flavor over the course of the novel, as time is running out. He finds it, too, in the nick of time ..... There were only so many ways Barbery could go with this, and it does feel a bit forced, but there's sufficient satisfaction in this particular conclusion.
       Richly written -- but rarely overwritten (impressive enough with this sort of undertaking) --, Gourmet Rhapsody is an interesting sort of character study. It feels a bit thin -- and it is a very short novel -- but the variety is appealing, and the mix of humor, philosophy, and culinary delights make it an easily digestible little morsel.
       Certainly adequate, if not all that much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 July 2009

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Gourmet Rhapsody: Reviews: Other books by Muriel Barbery under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Muriel Barbery was born in 1969.

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