three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
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A-Gourmet RhapsodyMuriel Barbery, a former philosophy teacher, is the author of the internationally best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2008). Gourmet Rhapsody is actually Barbery’s first novel, published in France nine years ago but in the United States a year after Hedgehog’s release.

The Story: Pierre Arthens, the self-proclaimed greatest food critic in the world, lies dying in his Paris apartment on the Rue de Grenelle. He is desperate to taste one last perfect ingredient before he succumbs, but he cannot quite remember what it is. Arthens reflects lovingly on past meals—from meatballs and tomatoes to toast and octopus—in the hope of remembering the elusive flavor. Interspersed with his gastronomical recollections are revealing, silent monologues from the people who gather around and ponder his death, many with unrepentant happiness. In this latest tale, Barbery explores what it means to live a full life.
Europa Editions. 160 pages. $15. ISBN: 9781933372952

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] sensual feast celebrating tastes, memory and impressionistic summertime repasts. … Where Hedgehog was a philosophic feast, Gourmet Rhapsody feels more like a series of exquisite small plates, delivered by a disdainful waiter and cooked by an uncaring hand." Debra Bruno

Newsday 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although too slight an effort to summon the same devotion Hedgehog elicited, it’s a quick and entertaining read. … Even though Gourmet Rhapsody is just a tasty hors d’oeuvre to the wholly satisfying entree that is Hedgehog, it proves worthwhile, thanks to Barbery’s witty and evocative prose." Carmela Ciuraru

Salon.com 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Arthens’ evocative descriptions are balanced with passages of painful pomposity, such as when the act of watching another person eat is described as a moment ‘exempt from the infinite vanishing line of our own memories and projects.’ However, the pretension that was so problematic in Hedgehog is forgivable, even enjoyable, here, because we’re allowed to dislike the protagonist." Tommy Wallach

Christian Science Monitor 3 of 5 Stars
"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. … Some of Barbery’s gastrophilosophical observations could be boiled down into clichés such as ‘the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ and ‘a man’s home is his castle,’ but that would be unfair." Yvonne Zipp

San Francisco Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"[M]ake no mistake about it: Gourmet Rhapsody is in scoring position primarily because it follows Barbery’s enchanting, heartbreaking philosophical fable in the lineup. … That said—and however disappointing Gourmet Rhapsody is after Hedgehog—when read in close succession, the two books are an object lesson in a talented author’s development." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

Critics found Gourmet Rhapsody less enjoyable than Barbery’s Hedgehog, which features a charming 12-year-old protagonist and an emotionally compelling story line. Arthens, who brings to mind the dour, condescending food critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s animated gastro-flick Ratatouille, is far less appealing. Only Salon thought that the weaknesses of Hedgehog—including its literary and philosophical pretensions—were strengths in Gourmet Rhapsody. Despite the comparison, most critics thought Rhapsody a worthy read, largely because of the mouth-watering descriptions of food that left many salivating. And, at a mere 160 pages, it is not much of a time commitment for those wishing to sample Barbery’s earlier work.