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With the release of John Lanchester's third novel, Fragrant Harbour, it is about time someone redressed the fact that no-one has yet reviewed the first here. That task I have taken on myself, and for this you should be grateful. The Debt to Pleasure is one of the worst books I have read this year, and certainly one of the most over-rated hits of modern literature. Perversely, all the critics splashed over the cover have the book down as a riotous comedy. Yes, there are two or three chuckles, and I particularly liked the one at the expense of Derby on p36, but for the most part it is dreary hellishness to read. Our narrator, Tarquin Winot is incredibly pompous - which I concede is the point, and the reason for the unlikely name. The story he is trying (or otherwise) to tell us, with his superior mien and too-large vocab, is peppered with as many high-falutin' comments on gourmet food as he can think of, and cooking and recipes are discussed in ultra-fine detail sometimes. All of which is mildly interesting for a few minutes, but for the length of the book (and it's not THAT long) is exceedingly tedious. The plot is insufferably minimal. In the first section we have discussions of 2 winter menus, plus learn the information that he is on his way to drive through France, and that when he was a kid his au-pair was once caught with his mother's ear-rings stuffed down beside her mattress. As I have to make this op worth your while, I will have to divulge the rest of the plot. (I will also be satisfied if it ruins the book for you all, as the book ruined my Sunday.) Anyway, go on, see if I can do it in less than 240 pages... It gradually comes out that people have been dying either side of our narrator, until the climax when he poisons the two people he has been following, whose only crime is to appreciate his brother's sculpture and other art. Yes, among all the non-events on every pa
ge is buried the fact that this Tarquin is a jealous guy, and he never liked playing second fiddle. There is a mysterious "collaborator" that gets a couple of mentions, and the repercussions of the earring saga is finally learnt on page 153, but I dare anyone to be interested for that long. There are many other books that split food-talk with a much better plot - Like Water For Chocolate, and more recently the lovely miniature, Les Liaisons Culinaires by Andreas Staikos (translated from the Greek). There must be countless superior books where the narrator is an unreliable git, and we are supposed to hate him as well as be both put off and interested in what he has to say. But for some reason this book kicked off a large career for John Lanchester, with all his friends and colleagues in the book review world talking it up as the best thing since sliced bread (with caviar on). There have been occasions that I have witnessed things being reviewed so badly, that I have thought "it can't be that bad, I bet I could like it". And you might be thinking the same thing now. I promise you that it CAN be that bad. If you are still obstinately untrusting of my hatred for this pile of tripe, feel free to go to the local library and try it out. Bear in mind that nowhere after the first 5 pages does it improve, or lighten up. If you can defy the test of the first ten minutes, then I might salute you. I would certainly question your taste. As for his more recent books, like his second, Mr Phillips, I tremble at how little he might have improved.
Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award 1996 / Draws the reader, through descriptions of food and cooking, into a world of murder and art. Narrated by Tarquin, an ironist, epicurean and a snob, this novel is constructed around a series of seasonal menus, which unfold his autobiography.