Written by: Agnès Desarthe
Translated By: Adriana Hunter
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
At forty-three, Myriam has been a wife, mother, and lover—but never a restauranteur. When she opens Chez Moi in a quiet neighborhood in Paris, she has no idea how to run a business, but armed only with her love of cooking, she is determined to try. Barely able to pay the rent, Myriam secretly sleeps in the dining room and bathes in the kitchen sink, while struggling to come to terms with the painful memories of her past. But soon enough her delectable cuisine brings her many neighbors to Chez Moi, and Myriam finds that she may get a second chance at life and love. Redolent with the sights, smells, and tastes of Paris, Chez Moi is a charming story that will appeal to the many readers who fell in love with Joanne Harris’s Chocolat and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.
I am and have always been a foodie. I love trying new things, new recipes included, quite regularly. I perhaps learned this from my father who was always trying new recipes, so much so that we never really had the same thing twice. Sometimes books and food collide. Not in the I got jam all over my copy of Pride and Prejudice, but that you have a book all about food. Sometimes if you are lucky you get recipes (Like Water For Chocolate) and the way food is used in the story is unique. The food becomes another character. It helps tell the story. It advances the plot. Maybe this is why I love books such as Like Water For Chocolate, Chocolat, Mistress of Spices, Julie and Julia, and The Kitchen God’s Wife.
Chez Moi was one of those books that got me with its cover. It’s a simple cover, the front of a café, but it was enough to get me to pick it up at the Library book sale. The back snippet reads a bit like Chocolat and there are some obvious comparisons. Myriam is a 43 year old woman whose life has certainly had its ups and downs. Wanting to start life again and find something she feels has been missing for so long she sets up a small café on a quiet part of Paris, funded by a bank loan she obtained using forged documents. She uses every bit of money she can into this endeavor, so much so that she lives in the restaurant as well.
Cooking is what Myriam knows. She finds a peace in cooking that she cannot seem to find anywhere else in her life. When she feeds her guests she is feeding them part of her soul because that is what went into her cooking. She lays it all out there in the kitchen, hopes, dreams, wants, expectations. And then she creates an amazing meal. For a time she finds herself, finds solace. And then the meal is done. Soon her small café is filled with customers and maybe, just maybe, she will find what she has been looking for all this time and get a second chance.
Things I liked:
Myriam has made many mistakes, mistakes that haunt her still. She is a flawed character in exile. When we meet her she has nothing left. She is broken, struggling to come to terms with her past, who she is, and what she wants. The restaurant and the food grow as she does.
It’s written in the stream of consciousness style as we listen to Myriam’s thoughts and motivations. There is no exciting plot, but the story of a woman who has lost much and is trying to find her place in the world and reconnect with it all. As I said Myriam is flawed as is her storytelling. Sometimes you don’t like her and you are not sure if you can trust her at all. But that is why I kind of liked it. Sometimes the best narrators are ones that leave you questioning their motives or the truth of anything they are saying. It’s a nice little character study of a woman who seems as real as both you and I. I am not perfect and neither is Myriam. I love that she is gifted in the kitchen but kind of sucks at life. She doesn’t know about budgets, bills, or even running her restaurant, but she can make food that will keep you coming back. I love that she wants a kids menu that is grown up food not watered down “kiddie” food.
The secondary characters in this novel are charming as well. Sometimes more so than Myriam. Ben, is an idealistic orphan who helps Myriam with her bills and becomes her first waiter. In him she sees a lot of her past and comes to terms with it. Her neighbor, the florist from next door, is awkward and a bit odd and I love the pair of schoolgirls she basically feeds for free.
As the novel continues and we learn more about Myriam’s past and where she has been since she left her husband and son. She spends time as a cook for a small traveling circus. We discover she was never really comfortable being a mother and a wife, that years ago she shut down all parts of her emotional self. The writing is interesting as it really is stream of consciousness in the way the story is told. At times the prose is descriptive, languid almost and then other times short and abrupt. It really depends on Myriam’s mood really. While this is interesting it was also a bit unbalanced for me. Which brings me to…
Things I didn’t like so much:
I love the focus on food, but I couldn’t help but make comparisons to other foodie books that I have read in the past and this one didn’t hit with me on every level as the others did. It can be a bit slow as there is no real plot. It’s a character study. I found myself reading a couple of chapters and then putting it down for a couple of days while I read another book. I did keep coming back to it though and ultimately I did finish it.
I think my biggest problem is I never really connected with Myriam. I didn’t understand her. I couldn’t relate to her the way I wanted to. Though I totally understand the themes of coming to terms with yourself and your past, she is a bit too odd for me, a bit too distant, a bit too…I don’t know. I was on her side for a good deal of it because this is a new, on a journey Myriam instead of the woman she once was (who I could not get behind). But the choices she makes…ugh. I don’t know. I really wanted to like this book far more than I did.
Buy or Borrow: Borrow. In the end this was not for me, but I would still recommend it as it is a different sort of story.
Part of:Stand Alone
Also Recommended: Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Chocolat by Joanne Harris, Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni , Julie and Julia by Julia Powell, and the Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
3 out of 4 happy bibliosnark bookmarks