This is an odd novel, though I was fascinated by it. Time plays very funny within its pages and I don’t think I truly understood why until I got to the end. It was something I should have suspected from the beginning, but I guess I was a little slow. My whole approach to this book has been slow. I saw it first listing in the Advance magazine, then when I actually purchased it, I left it sitting on my shelf for exactly a year (the recipe was tucked into the front cover) before I every picked it up.
At the heart this seems to be a novel about story telling through many media. There are story-recipes, clock-work stories, ballads, plays, pamphlets, and love notes. There is all sorts of language in the book too, while written in English, it is peppered with foreign words German, Yiddish, and more. None of it will put off your understanding of the book, but it gives it texture and it adds to the sense of time and place.
This book is set during WWI-through the beginning of WWII, with its epilogue in 1946. The majority set in Berlin during the Weimar Republic. There is lots of talk of war and revolution, and every chapter give a year, but the history challenged you’ll have to piece the extra conflicts together yourself. There is mention of Bavaria, which I never could figure out if it was part of WWI or some separate conflict in this great time of turmoil.
Turmoil both internal and external is what sets these characters spinning. They are an eclectic assortment. Our narrator is a Jewish chef, who is 7th tall, with two different color eyes. She is often the subject of fear and superstition because of her looks, and later celebrated because of her talent with food. But, in these times attention is not always a good thing. There are her friends who are a used clothes seller, a seamstress, a Auntie Mame like woman who drives a motor car badly, gambles, and conspires with revolutionaries, there are more revolutionaries, playwrights, chefs, restaurateurs, artist, actresses, and clock-makers. They are all struggling against a world that doesn’t make sense anymore, and struggling with one another over love and fame and ideas.
The book moves fast and it as if you are just catching snatches, we’ve barely gotten over a fight and we’ve landed into something new. Having said that, it is not confusing. I’d have liked to read more of Esther’s cooking and less of Kaya and Thomas relationship, but it made sense giving how Esther was so emotionally tied to them.
As to the ending, well without giving anything away, all I can say is, I guess I was naïve to believe it could conclude any other way. There were clues right from the beginning, but I didn’t pick up on them. This book wasn’t a tear-jerker for me. There was certainly tragedy throughout, but there was distance in the writing. Not the kind of distance that is off-putting, but that made the action feel slightly less immediate. I understood at the end.
I recommend this book. It is different from my normal genre reads and given that my last venture into literary fiction was disappointing, I am glad this one was not.
side note: third book in a row to use the word ‘pinion’