Monday, February 6, 2012

Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

I was out in San Francisco with my husband and a friend and I saw Fernet Branca on the drinks memu. I asked the server about it and she admitted that she knew next to nothing about it, never having tasted it herself. I ordered it anyway, thinking of this book sitting on my shelves as I did so. My husband, even used to my quirks, was nonplussed by the fact that I was ordering an unknown drink based entirely on the title of a book I had not yet even read. To my mind, Fernet Branca tastes a little bit like cough syrup. So not exactly a drink I'll be ordering again any time soon. Luckily the book was significantly better than the drink and I would happily revisit Hamilton-Paterson's works again and again.

This novel is an hilarious send-up of those moving and starting over travel narrative memoirs where an ex-pat moves to an exotic (usually Mediterranean) locale, restores a marvelous home, gently mocks the eccentric natives, and cooks fabulous meals with fresh local produce. Gerald and Marta are ex-pat neighbors in a small Tuscan hill village but that is where the similarities to the typical travel narratives stop. Gerald is a bit of a fussy, curmudgeonly Englishman who ghostwrites memoirs for the rich and famous (and often dissipated). He has retreated to this out of the way place so that he can write in peace and quiet. Marta is a seemingly stodgy Slav from the former Soviet-block and just about everything about her offends Gerald's sensibilities. That she is also a composer working on the movie score for a famous director's film seems to him to be a fabrication of vast proportions. But as each others' closest neighbors, they cannot escape each other and must exist in an entertaining disharmony.

The narration alternates between Gerald and Marta so that the reader has the opportunity to see all of the comic misunderstandings and assumptions from both eccentric characters' perspectives. Gerald is certain he is a cook of the highest calibre and his inventive if positively ghastly dishes are all included with the text (and contain copious amounts of Fernet Branca, hence the title). Marta seems to egg the prissy, easily offended Gerald on, but she has her own quirks as well. The situations in the novel go from mundane to beyond far-fetched but by the time they get completely unbelievable, readers are already so entertained by the novel that they just laugh harder, thoroughly enjoying the ride. Witty, clever, delightfully sarcastic, and satirical this was a blast to read and I'm looking forward to the next one.

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