An original story of midlife transformation.
Myriam is a woman with a troubled past and an uncertain future. At the age of 43, she decides to open a restaurant. She lies her way into a loan, buys food and fixtures she can’t afford and opens her kitchen to almost certain failure. Just when she’s on the brink of collapse, help arrives in the form of an angelic waiter, the daring decision to offer cheap but good takeaway and to turn her establishment into a gustatory haven for children. This synopsis could be the formula for cheesy commercial fiction, but the story is distinctly cosmopolitan. Myriam, a Parisian, is a beguiling character, and not entirely sympathetic. She’s charming, but part of her charm lies in her prodigious powers of untruth. Desarthe (Good Intentions, 2002, etc.) allows scenes from Myriam’s past to gradually unfold. The heroine is estranged from her husband and son because of an unambiguously bad choice of lovers, but the catalyst for this disastrous relationship was her already broken bond with her child. Desarthe deals with some heavy themes here, but she does so without melodrama, and without asking readers to pity her deeply flawed creation. Myriam has an engaging, sometimes very funny voice, and there are some truly arresting scenes—Myriam bathing in her kitchen’s stainless steel sink among them. The writing is elegant, and the translation contains some Britishisms while also displaying a certain Gallic flair. The happy ending is slightly fantastical, but it’s in keeping with the gently absurdist tone of the novel as a whole.
Reading groups in search of spirited discussion would do well to choose this complex and satisfying tale.