The Last Banquet

By Jonathan Grimwood

(Europe Editions, $26.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Grimwood could give the “most interesting man in the world” guy from the Dos Equis commercials a run for his beer money.

Grimwood was born on the island of Malta and grew up in the Far East, Britain and Scandinavia. He has written for The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph and  The Independent in England, and using the name Jon Courtenay, he has won two  British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel. He lives in England.

What is this book about?

Let them eat pickled wolf’s heart.

This is the tale of Jean-Marie d’Aumout, a man who has never met a food he would not sample, no matter how bizarre. Dung beetles, three-snake bouillabaisse, breast milk: Jean-Marie has eclectic tastes and the book has the recipes to prove it. The action takes place during the days of the Enlightenment, the decadent palace life in Versailles and the French Revolution, as Jean-Marie , an orphan at age 5, makes his sensuous way through a world in turmoil. Along the way he makes a friend of Ben Franklin, writes to the Marquis de Sade and Voltaire and generally has a high old time of it. Here is a man who is obsessed with flavors and is on a quest to taste all that he can while he can.

Why you’ll like it:

Is it possible to savor food by reading about it? Grimwood does his best to achieve that magical feat, and comes about as close as you could hope for. He has created a sensual man who lives to try new flavors and portrays him, the foods he craves and the world he lives in with just the right vivid style. This is a historical novel in which the events are complemented by a lively exploration of foods, romance, sex and politics. Vive la France!

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “With his parents dead, young Jean-Marie d’Aumont is found eating beetles on a dung heap and sent to a school for the “sons of destitute nobles” in Enlightenment-era France. He likes school fine, but he didn’t mind the beetles either (brown are sour, black tasty), and as far as he’s concerned, the most notable part of his rescue is the piece of Roquefort cheese he’s given. Along with the beetles, the Roquefort sets d’Aumont on the way to a career as gastronome, sensualist, and taster, a man who can determine what a woman’s eaten recently by rolling a drop of her breast milk on his tongue. The book, ostensibly a memoir written as the French Revolution picks up speed, at the end of a long life, is leisurely but never dull. Watching d’Aumont rise in the world—he makes friends with sons of nondestitute nobles, marries for love, assembles the largest menagerie outside of Versailles, serves as the royal envoy to rebellious and proto-democratic Corsica, and learns how to make a really top-notch condom—is full of pleasures (and recipes, for those wondering how to prepare, say, wolf’s heart). Grimwood, a journalist and, under another name the author of a good deal of genre fiction, has the gift of making a character’s sensual pleasures as alive to the reader as to they are to him.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Jean-Marie d’Aumout is a liberal, democratic Frenchman obsessed with flavor whose life, narrated in an elegant debut, lays bare the extreme contrasts of pre-Revolutionary France. First encountered at age 5, eating beetles from a dung heap, his parents dead in their run-down chateau, the boy who will become the Marquis d’Aumout never grows out of his fascination with how things taste. Rescued by the Duc d’Orléans, who gives him his first, divine taste of Roquefort cheese, d’Aumout is sent to school and then military academy, where the friends he makes will shape his life. Charlot, heir to the wildly wealthy Saulx estate, will introduce him to one of his sisters, Virginie, whose life d’Aumout will save twice. Grimwood’s sensuous, intelligent, occasionally drifting account of the marquis’s progress is constantly informed by French politics, notably the immense gulf between the nobility and the peasants whom d’Aumout at least treats with fairness. Scenes at Versailles underline the decadence which will lead to social collapse. Through it all, d’Aumout is driven by a hunger to taste everything–rat, wolf, cat, etc.–and an erotic appetite that is explicitly filled. Ben Franklin puts in a late appearance before the revolution begins, and d’Aumout prepares for a final, extraordinary meal. Studded with bizarre recipes, this vividly entertaining account of a life lived during groundbreaking times is a curious, piquant pleasure.”

“Like Patrick Süskind’s murderous Grenouille in Perfume, [Jean-Marie d'Aumout's] supersensitivity to taste, it is intimated, is to be theme, motive, ornament and philosophical disquisition in a life that spans the turbulent century leading up to the French revolution…There is much to enjoy in this book: it is racily picaresque, energetic and clever. History is deftly and diligently interposed with the details of a life, while Jean-Marie’s character is carefully elaborated so as to illustrate the various aspects of a vivid era: pre-revolutionary France, with its philosophers and gourmets and interestingly depraved nobility,” says The Guardian.

When is it available?

You can get a taste of “The Last Banquet” at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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