When Jean-Marie d’Aumout tastes Roquefort for the first time, his passion for taste is awakened. He is an orphan in 18th century France but is rescued by the side of a dung heap, where he is feasting on beetles, and sent off to a school for penniless noble sons. His experiments in taste know no bounds but a chef is not a life for a nobleman and he finds himself at military school where he befriends boys who can make or break his life in French society.
The Last Banquet had me swaying between hungry and queasy with Jean-Maries exploration of taste. Because he doesn’t just eat fine French food but pretty much anything that appears edible. And plenty of cats. He also likes to describe the taste of women, which just made me think of the exaggerated description wine experts give and felt a bit silly. But we are in the French 18th century and can only expect a bit of sex in the story. It did make me cringe when he stops to “taste” a poor woman who is hanging upside down from her horse, which was possibly the point where I thought I might give up on this book.
I generally need to be able to connect emotionally with the characters to be fully immersed in a book and it just wasn’t happening for much of the book. It is only actions later in his life that made me start to care what happened to him. His relationship with the tiger was more real than anything else. This made the ending fitting for me as his friends and wives seemed fleeting in the context of the novel.
What Grimwood does brilliantly is the aging of his narrator. The novel spans a man’s entire life and that man evolves across the years. From the small boy with little awareness of the world around him, through a thoughtless and at times cruel boyhood through marriages up to a resigned adult. I liked learning a little French history, especially around the politics of nobility. And I absolutely loved the fact that Jean-Marie’s fake job with the court meant his home was filled with the rejects from the royal menagerie.
Although the revolution plays only a small part, Jean-Marie’s lifetime does follow a volatile period in French history. This perspective shows a different injustice. A man who has risen from the dung heap and has been kind to peasants, still gets treated despicably because of his heritage. I was actually quite angry that his good deeds were not taken into account even if he was rather an odd man.
The Last Banquet is published by Canongate and is now available in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review. Grimwood also writes sci-fi and fantasy as Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.
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