Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

I would have enjoyed reading Cooking with Fernet Branca just as much had I never read Peter Mayle. James Hamilton-Paterson's characters are quirky and true, his settings are well-described, and his action is zippy all on their own. All is richer and funnier, however, when read with a memory of Mayle's pretty memoir of living the expat life in Tuscany. In Hamilton-Paterson's book, the kind of bucolic life that Mayle describes is what British writer Gerald Sampers is after. It is not what he finds.

Sampers finds himself living next door to Marta, a Voynovian composer; each narrates sections of the novel as they bump up against each other in what each had expected to be the glorious solitude of the Italian countryside. Both characters are unusual; each thinks the other is a drunkard. Neither would make much of a neighbor, in my opinion.

The two combine to make great comedy. Here's Marta's description of Gerald, in a letter to her sister: "Anyway, this neighbor is an Englishman with a little paunch and one of those strange empty trouser-seats that always suggests an amputated bottom. They may be an English specialty."

Perhaps most comic of all are Gerald's culinary efforts. The first time he gave a recipe, something about oysters dipped in soy sauce and chocolate and then fried, I wondered if it might not actually work. As the book wore on, the gastronomy became even more outrageous, however, and I am now quite certain he is not a man to be trusted in the kitchen.

While I would generally classify the book as pleasant but light, the ending held echoes of Jane Austen for me; I'll say no more on that score. You must read it and see for yourself.

N.B. -- I've just realized that I confused Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes. How embarrassing! An error worthy of Gerald Samper himself. Ms. Mayes wrote Under the Tuscan Sun, of course. I was thinking of Mayle's A Year in Provence. My error does, however, underscore the point that one expat in the Italian/French countryside is as good as another.