A recipe for three-snake bouillabaisse? Check. A blind pet lion with milky eyes? Check. A sex scene replete with melted candle wax on bare skin? Check.
“The Last Banquet” by Jonathan Grimwood is a sense-feast of a novel spanning 18th-century France. Tracing the life of its speaker-protagonist, Jean-Marie D’Aumout, the novel opens with D’Aumout’s earliest memory: snacking on dung beetles in a dung heap outside his childhood home (his parents, destitute nobles, starved to death inside). Through a combination of good fortune, unique intellect, courage and kindness, D’Aumout follows his taste buds down a charmed path that restores his family’s legacy, at least for a time, and aids him on a quest for the perfect flavor.
The stringy flesh of an old lion sautéed with onion? Check. A secret Corsican cheese made from women’s breast milk and tied in muslin? Check.
He continues his quest until the very end of his life, as the French Revolution literally knocks on his chateau’s gates. Although this is a novel that revels in the riches of the senses, it is as much a history lesson mapping the fall of the French aristocracy, as D’Aumout observes the growing discontent of the peasant class — eventually so destitute that they defecate openly in the streets. He winces at the crumbling opulence of Versailles, where princes and tiny dogs dwell together in the stench of bodily functions and rotting meat.
Wolf wrestling? Check. A recipe for braised flamingo tongue? Check. Discarded animals from Versailles’ menagerie? Check. A whole warthog jarred in brine? Check.
This is a sensuous, sensual, engaging and sometimes risqué novel peppered with D’Aumout’s exotic recipes. It is, in fact, a story about taste, a story about seeking pleasure in a sad world, a portrait of 18th-century France. And it’s as much a story about love and friendship: D’Aumout is a husband twice, a father, a lover, a lifelong friend. His interactions with other characters form the backbone of the narrative.
A locked Corsican cave with only live bats for nourishment? Check. An old dog tried by a court of children on behalf of its owner, hanged and cooked? Check.
Despite some dizzying tense changes (perhaps a device Grimwood used to make us question the nature of memory and time and to create passages of present-tense visceral experience), “The Last Banquet” is a fascinating sensory experience written in a mostly engaging first-person voice.
Ben Franklin in a cameo appearance? Check. One of the most unbelievably strange and strangely likeable protagonists I’ve read in years? Check.
“The Last Banquet” is available at Bookstore1, 1359 Main St., Sarasota. Call 365-7900.
Top 10 fiction titles at Bookstore1 this month:
1. “Flight Behavior” by Barbara Kingsolver
2. “English Girl: A Novel” by Daniel Silva
3. “Bad Monkey” by Carl Hiassen
4. “Shoemaker’s Wife: A Novel” by Adriana Trigiani
5. “Sycamore Row” by John Grisham
6. “Doctor Sleep: A Novel” by Stephen King
7. “Sweet Tooth: A Novel” by Ian McEwan
8. “Local Souls” by Allan Gurganus
9. “Beautiful Ruins: A Novel” by Jess Walter
10. “City of Thieves” by David Benioff
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