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In pre-revolutionary France, Jean-Marie d'Aumout's earliest memories are of eating beetles from the dung heap outside his dead parent's home. After being rescued from this, he's brought to a school for other sons of the impoverished aristocracy. There he begins a new life, one that brings him many adventures, and throughout it all, he culls his palate for exotic foods and fills his journals the remarkable recipes he invents. This is "The Last Banquet" by Jonathan Grimwood.
Using realistic French aristocratic surnames and including mentions of such people as Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin, Grimwood brings an authenticity to this unusual tale, which underlies the audacity of the story. Jean-Marie tells us his whole life history himself. He starts with his rescue by a 'vicomte' and his bastard son who introduce him to his first taste of Roquefort. From there, he recounts his education and connections to other boys, most of who are like himself - born into families with nothing left but their noble names. As he proves himself in school and his military service, he walks a path that leads him into the type of life which he ever would have expected. Throughout all of this, he feeds his lusts and desires, both sexual and culinary. Knowing French history, we realize this lifestyle was doomed at the onset. But in getting to that end, Grimwood takes us on a journey that is both fantastic and fascinating.
With all this, Grimwood also gives us many recipes of Jean-Marie's personal invention. With a wry humor, he concludes almost all of them with notations of their tastes, many of which are unsurprisingly "like chicken." What makes them unusual is that their primary proteins won't be on your local restaurant menus, and include things like cat, dog, snake, wolf, flamingo and alligator. This book is therefore not for vegetarians. Furthermore, descriptions of how King Louis XV treats the animals in his private zoo would disgust even the most cursory of PETA's supporters. But despite his bizarre tastes, Jean-Marie is a totally endearing character. The scrapes he finds himself getting into and the instinctive ways he gets out of them belie his professed cowardly nature. And while his sexual appetites mirror that of his palate, he is no philanderer. His intense loyalty to his King, friends and family rarely come into question, and if he's found lacking, it is only slightly so, and therefore is mostly forgiven.
However, one problem with this type of a story is that an account of full life doesn't always lead to one overall conflict to be resolved (for better or worse) with a major story climax. Peoples' lives are characteristically filled with many troubles that must be suffered through and overcome. Some of them are past us before they seem to begin; others never come to a head and are left as unanswered question marks. This means that "The Last Banquet" ends up with a slightly rollercoaster feel to it, with all of the many ups and downs of Jean-Marie's life. As we rejoice at his triumphs and mourn with his losses, we also know that the French Revolution won't bypass Jean-Marie no matter how good he is to his own subjects. So while this is unknown to Jean-Marie, the readers anticipate this, which makes for an interesting building element in the overall plot. But just how Grimwood concludes this is what makes the book all that more poignant. This also makes some of the slower parts of the story easier to overlook, since we are anxious to find out how or if Jean-Marie will be affected by this historical element. This also works well with our wanting to discover the nature of the feast referred to in the novel's title.
All of this is done with a lilt of language that feels like it has been lovingly translated from the French. With this, the decadence of 18th Century France is described in almost poetic details, which mirror the evocative descriptions of the foods Jean-Marie samples as well as his sexual encounters. This makes the book feel equally as self-indulgent as the era and as charming as our protagonist is portrayed. It also gives the novel an overall refined feel to it, which matches the patrician status of the major characters. Despite some parts that I found slightly disgusting to read, overall I found "The Last Banquet" to be a delightful read. I'd say it deserves a solid recommendation with a strong four out of five stars.
"The Last Banquet" by Jonathan Grimwood was published by Canongate Books on July 4, 2013.
My thanks to Canongate Books for sending me an advance review copy of this novel via Curious Book Fans. This review originally appeared on Curious Book Fans.