A British satirical novel skewers celebrity autobiographies, environmental activism and the idyllic life in Tuscany.
Introduced previously, in Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), Gerald Samper returns with his flamboyant wit and self-absorption undiminished. He also retains a flair for the offbeat recipe, instructing the reader on the preparation of Death Roe and Badger Wellington with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Samper’s comic voice permeates and dominates this novel, where the other characters are mainly caricatures and the plot has a spirit of slapdash serendipity. Narrated in the present tense, as if Samper is experiencing as he is writing, the story concerns his latest ghostwriting project, Millie!, the memoir of a plucky, intrepid, one-armed grandmother who has set a record for sailing around the world (“single-handedly”). Though hailed as a heroine in her native Britain and throughout much of the nautical world, Millie Cleat is actually a foul-mouthed, difficult woman who has a penchant for leaving trouble in her wake. Samper must mediate between the truth as he sees it and the story Millie wants told. He also must do his best to torpedo the possibility of a sequel with this impossible woman. He’s much more interested in another project, the biography of a gifted conductor, though the subject is reluctant and the commercial prospects aren’t nearly as great. Subplots include Samper’s experimentation with male enhancement pills and the hilariously embarrassing consequences, and the mystery of the disappearance of his neighbor in Tuscany, which inspires all sorts of observations about the cutthroat Tuscan real-estate market and those who succumb to this fantasy of the good life. For a man of such refined sensibility, Samper suffers through a series of disgraces concerning bodily functions. The plot reaches its improbable climax at his 50th birthday party, though he has insisted that he’s just on the cusp of 40.
Whatever the novel lacks in terms of literary depth or character development it makes up for in laughs.