Picks and Pans Review: The Debt to Pleasure
by John Lanchester
Don't let the luscious peach on the cover or the scholarly asides about caviar and kings lull you into thinking you're in for a comfy chewing of the fat with some Oxbridge Martha Stewart. Lanchester, a former restaurant reviewer for the London Observer, and his inspired narrator, Tarquin Winot, certainly know their way around a whisk, but what they are cooking up in this dazzling first novel is considerably more more diabolic.
The book opens innocuously on the eve of snobbish epicure Tarquin's Channel crossing to France, as he begins describing the first of the seasonal menus around which this story is structured. But we quickly discover that nothing here is what it seems—beginning with the narrator.
For starters, he happens to mention in passing that he's wearing a disguise, including a fake mustache. Then there's the question of his name. Baptized Rodney, he has rechristened himself in homage to the villainous Tarquin dynasty of ancient Rome. And, most important, there are all the terrible things that keep happening to people close to him—including the sudden death of his older brother Bartholomew, a world-famous artist, and the gas-boiler explosion that kills their parents. The macabre real story slowly emerges through the clues that Tarquin allows to slip into his extended culinary musings.
Judging by the novel's ingenious organization, sly tone, intellectual breadth and Nabokovian sleight of hand, Lanchester, now deputy editor of The London Review of Books, has clearly learned from the masters. I can't imagine where he goes after such a breathtaking debut—but wherever it is, I look forward to tagging along. (Holt, $20)
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