"The Various Flavours of Coffee" begins in 1896. Robert Wallis is an idle fop who harbours dreams of being a poet but is too workshy to really apply himself. Instead he spends his days living off his father's money, dressing in the latest fashions and fancying himself as Oscar Wilde's understudy as he speaks in dreadful epigrams and makes sure he gets seen in the "in" places in London. One day while in the Cafe Royal he is overheard describing the coffee as tasting "of nothing much except mud. With, perhaps, a faint aftertaste of rotten apricots".
The man who has been listening is Samuel Pinker, a London coffee merchant who asks Robert to see him at his offices the following day. Robert thinks he is going to offer him an advertising position and goes along with the intention of refusing the offer which he feels is an insult to his talents; but when he gets there he learns not only that the job is actually to put into words the particular flavours of the various types of coffee, but that the clever Mr Pinker has contacted his father and they have agreed already that Robert will take up the position (Mr Wallis Snr being delighted to be able to stop financing his son's expensive habits).
Reluctantly Robert starts work and this onerous activity instantly becomes more appealing when, on his first day he meets Pinker's eldest daughter, Emily, with whom he will be working. The serious and rather modern Emily finds Robert's constant witticisms tedious at first but gradually he wears her down and Robert believes he has won Emily's heart. When the project is almost over, Robert tells Mr Pinker - who knows nothing of the romance - that he would like to marry Emily. When Emily is asked her opinion, she tells her father that "I am not in love with Robert, but we are friends, - good friends. I believe he has the makings of a kind, able man. I believe that he wants to do good in the world. I should like to be able to help him". Robert is stunned at this but since he wants so badly to marry Emily he says nothing. Mr Pinker, meanwhile, makes a proposal of his own. He wants Robert to go to Africa to set up a new coffee plantation on his behalf. He will advance Robert a sum of money for expenses and in five years time, when he returns (for coffee cultivation is not a quick business) he may marry Emily.
Desperate to prove himself to Emily, Robert accepts.
Accompanied by dour Scotsman adventurer, and one of Pinker's most loyal staff, Hector Crannach, Robert sets of for Africa, spurred on by his love for Emily. However, it's not long before tragedy strikes and the daring Hector is killed by a leopard leaving Robert to find his own way in a foreign country and in a business he knows virtually nothing about. To make matters more complicated Robert finds that it is easy to forget about Emily, especially when he meets Fikre, a beautiful slave belonging to one of his chief business associates.
Back at home, loyal Emily throws herself into political activities to keep herself occupied and becomes interested in the womens' suffrage movement and through it she meets Arthur Brewer, a Liberal MP who seems to agree with her beliefs. Despite the fact that she is engaged to Robert, Mr Pinker appears to encourage the friendship between his daughter and the MP but it quickly becomes apparent that the shrewd Mr Pinker may have an ulterior motive for encouraging the relationship.
"The Various Flavours of Coffee" caught my imagination right from the start, so much so I almost don't know where to start. At 468 pages this is quite a long novel but it is packed with so much incident and with such engaging characters that I barely noticed the pages pass by. From the moment Robert's narration begins I was drawn into the story and could hardly bear to put the book down.
The characterisation is superb. Robert is at the same time loathsome yet charming. He is lazy and selfish, a dandy concerned only with his own appearance and his own pleasures who visits prostitutes every night, in spite of his great love for Emily. In his narration Robert makes lots of allowances for his behaviour, the chief one of which is that these things weren't unusual at the time. Drug taking and visiting prostitutes was not uncommon for a young man like Robert in those days and the story as a whole is one that can only fit into the Victoria era.
Mr Pinker is a wonderfully depicted character who starts off as a principled but forward-thinking businessman who wants his firm to do well but also wants to be able to make a difference in the social field and starts a chain of "Temperance Taverns" (in reality a coffee house serving his own coffee brand) in order to do so.
Emily is a complex character; she is modern and independent yet she worries very much about the opinions of her family and other people in general. In spite of her youth and relative inexperience she is strong and idealistic but ultimately she pays the price for her high principles. This is an utterly convincing character portrait of the time; a young woman caught between modern principles and aspirations and a society that believed there is a certain way for young women to behave. Her younger sisters, also, follow this pattern and the reader gets the impression of a widower who is proud of his well-educated and compassionate daughters, and three young women who are proud of their hard-working and high-achieving father. With what seems to me very typical Victorian irony we later learn that appearances can be very deceptive.
With quite diverse themes like women's suffrage, travel to Africa, the emergence of advertising in business, the cultivation and details of different types of coffee plus several romances and the complicated world of domestic relationships, this could have been a patchy and muddled novel. However, these various threads hang together brilliantly and blend effortlessly into one overarching story.
The coffee aspect was my favourite part of the book and it was this that interested me in reading it the first place. I've read Capella's first two novels "The Food of Love" and "The Wedding Officer", both of which focus on food as a central theme and this author has quite a talent for conjuring up evocative images around the preparation and eating of delicious food. "The Various Flavours of Coffee" doesn't disappoint; Capella still has an incredible ability to summon up flavours and smells that bring his novels alive. Robert talks about one coffee as having "a deep, bassoprofundo note of liquorice and clove" and another "the aroma of exotic flowers filled the rooms - and not just flowers; there was lime, tobacco, even mown grass." It was really interesting to learn about the different types of coffee and how combinations are created and quite surprising to find out the depth of coffee knowledge that existed then.
It's not only the subject of coffee that enlightens in this book. I already knew a fair bit about the Suffragettes but from reading this book I learned a lot more. I also learned more about the dramatic pace with which business processes and customs changed during the Victorian era. I particularly liked the part where Mr Pinker decides to engage an American advertising company to promote Castle Coffee; the patronising (certainly looking at it from the perspective of the twenty-first century) messages of the advertisements is very funny.
Another thing I learned a lot about was the way stocks and shares are bought and sold; in particular this novel gives just about the best explanation of futures trading I have ever read and this forms one of the most dramatic parts of the story.
I may have learned lots about all kinds of topics from reading this one novel but the explanations always sit comfortably within the story and never hamper its pace. Given that the key features of the story are very much of a particular place and time, I suppose this makes "The Various Flavours of Coffee" a 'historical novel'; certainly our values and, also laws, have changed considerably since then and many of the things that are new and innovative in the novel are second nature now. However, it never really feels like a historical novel and that, I feel, is because the characters are so well constructed. They may have faults but they are drawn quite sympathetically and, although we might not think in quite the same way as people did then, the characters don't seem so obviously from another era as in other novels I have read set in this period.
Capella moves brilliantly between humour - sometimes gentle, sometimes acerbic -, passion and tragedy. While the funny parts are vey funny - the epigrammatic nonsense that Robert spouts is inspired - the moving parts are handled with tenderness but don't, inspite of the height of the humour, come across as melodramatic. The unexpected (to me anyway) ending was a triumph and while it was not the one I hoped for, turned out in the end to be quite perfect. I was enjoying reading this book so much that I was becoming quite sad to know the final pages were drawing near but the brilliant ending softened the blow.
If you have read other Anthony Capella novels, his latest is compulsory reading. If you haven't, it's time you started. This wonderfully funny yet thought-provoking novel is the perfect antidote to the winter blues and should be on everyone's list this Christmas.