Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Taste of Passion

"La Cucina" by Lily Prior


They say that authors like Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat, Five Quarters of the Orange) invented the genre of "Cuisine Romance" or "culinary fiction" novels. If this is true, then with her first novel, "La Cucina," Lily Prior took this genre to heights that none of them ever dreamed they could reach. 

The story of this book, set in Sicily, is very simple. Rosa Fiore lives in a small Sicilian village. When the love of her life disappears, it is obvious that his refusal to marry someone other than Rosa led to his murder. Broken hearted, Rosa leaves her family farm in Castiglione and goes to Palermo. There she becomes a librarian, who feeds her gaping heart with her the finest of Sicilian cuisine – made by her own hands, and with all her pent up ardor. Then one day an English chef comes to the library to research the history of Sicily's gastronomic delights, but apparently Rosa is on the menu for dessert! 

This slim volume of only 266 pages has a listing of a cast of characters that fills almost four pages. Yet, somehow with just a few strokes of her pen, Prior is able to make us feel that most of them are truly vibrant and multi-faceted people. Prior seems to have an uncanny ability to invent absurdities and quirks that make many of these characters astoundingly unique, so that we can pick out individual faces despite the throng she brings to the story. While many of them end up with only a few moments in the spotlight (and some only get a passing mention), they often come back through aside remarks or tiny flashbacks. I found this to be very endearing and felt that Prior was weaving a whole village of people for us to read about. Think carnival sideshow mixed with country Mafia and you'll start to get the picture. 

However, this doesn't mean that her main characters suffer in the least. This is primarily Rosa's story, and Prior has drawn her so vividly in all of her complexities that I swear I could pick her out of a crowd. She's plump – if not downright fat – with swirling dark tresses and a downward glance in her soft brown eyes, and she walks hiding herself from the world. But when she's in her tiny kitchen, she stands upright, shoulders back and her eyes sparkle and color comes into her cheeks. Can you see her? Well, that's how I see her, and this is no quote from the book, I assure you. The other major character – l'Inglese (or the Englishman) never actually gets a real name in this book, but he too is easily imaginable. Prior has written him slightly more enigmatic than Rosa, and rightfully so, since she wanted his true intentions to be on the mysterious side. This gives the novel a curiously cloudy undertone to which she adds Italian folklore and a touch of innocence and wit, which made this tale even more alluring. 

The other two major elements in this book are sex and food. What makes this book special is how Prior combined these two elements so totally that they became almost inseparable. The sex scenes include savory aromas, spicy accents and sweet toppings, while the cooking is either steamily sensual or deeply passionate – both physical and platonic. In short, this book is truly a feast in every respect. 

Prior's language is also a joy. She peppers the text with words in Italian but not to a point where you cannot understand what she's trying to say. Otherwise, she uses simplicity of phrase to give this book a touch of purity, mixed with a good amount of humor. This makes for a very easy read but one where you feel you are deeply involved but not overly taxed intellectually. In addition, she doesn't make the reader feel stupid by spelling everything out. What I mean by this is, she uses suggestion in her story so that the reader feels what is happening or about to happen or will happen, when the writing comes to an end, rather than being told it all. Again, the first rule of good fiction is "show, don't tell" and Prior has learned this lesson to perfection. 

I found nothing to fault this book on, with the singular exception that it finishes far too soon. However, when you have a good thing going, perhaps leaving your audience wanting more isn't the worst thing you could do (and now I see she's written a sequel). Therefore, I highly recommend this book, as a fun read which would be perfect for a summer holiday read (not only because the book is short). 

"La Cucina" by Lily Prior published in 2000 is available in paperback from The Book Depository, on Kindle from Amazon, in Nook format from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or an audiobook from iTunes, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a revised version of a review that originally appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, as well as on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

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