Sometimes you wonder what makes an international bestseller. The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa has been a bestseller in Japan and was even adapted into a movie. Yet being popular in Japan doesn't automatically propel it into a category of an international bestseller (as promised on the paperback's cover). I haven't heard of this author or book until I chanced upon it, browsing The Book People's mini-magazine which regularly pops through my letterbox.
It was sold in a bundle of three food-themed fiction books, all for a princely sum of £4.99, and I thought these books would do nicely for our ReadCookEat challenge.
The book is written in the foodie fiction genre, and is compared to "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel and "Chocolat" by Joanne Harris. And in a way, it is reminiscent of Chocolat, with the main protagonist setting an eatery (cafe) where she creates food as an artist.
The novel starts abruptly, when the main protagonist Rinko comes home to discover that all her earthly possessions are gone, been stolen by her boyfriend. He takes everything, having emptied all the cupboards. Rinko leaves her thieving boyfriend behind and returns to her native village in the middle of nowhere, where her mother runs a bar and keeps a pet pig, a substitute for the daughter who left her 10 years earlier to seek her fortune in the big city. Once back, Rinco decides to open an eatery of a special kind. Her concept is to use the local ingredients, grown by the farmers and foraged in the fields and mountains, and serve only one table every evening. She calls her eatery The Snail.
I read it with mixed feelings. On one hand, it is a hymn to foraging, and some of the most beautiful passages in the book are related to nature and its fruit.
"I came across a mountain grapevine along the way... And though it was bitter and sour when picked fresh, I knew there was something I could do with them. So I grabbed a few handfuls and placed them in my basket safely in the front of the Snail Mobile... Then afterwards I carefully washed, boiled and soaked the freshly picked mountain grapes in balsamic vinegar. In twelve years, they would be ready to eat and I closed my eyes and imagined how they would taste... And with these prayers in my mind, I carefully poured the balsamic vinegar into the bottles..."
For me this extract describes a whole Eastern philosophy of patience and wisdom.
Rinko heals the hearts of her customers by serving her "magic" food. For me, the stories of her customers were the most moving part of the book, and the recipes she created for them of great interest. It is definitely a book for foodies.
The food is an "obscure object of desire" and worship.
"When I thought the cocoa was ready, I topped it off with a generous amount of honey as well as a secret ingredient - a few drops of a sophisticated cognac. Then I gently placed some lightly whipped cream on the surface, like a floating cloud, with a fresh sprig of mint on the top. I knew that mint had a calming effect and I was hoping it would work its magic on Kozue".
On the other hand, I was often befuddled by the the level of translation which was below standard. There were some paragraphs which I had to re-read to understand. Some of the pages were totally lost in translation.
For example, "I'd always assumed Mum had given the pig that name [Hermes] since she'd always been a fan of big-name fashion brands. But instead the name was actually derived from "L-Mes", with the "L" standing for her breed, Landrace, and the other part sounding a little like "Miss" since she was a female..." Confused? Well, I am.
Spoiler alert (stop reading if you haven't read this book and plan to):
There were also too many unanswered questions.
Why did Rinko just leave after discovering her boyfriend absconded with her worldly possessions? She could have gone to police and at least made a statement. Why on earth her Indian boyfriend take her kitchen utensils and even a door mat? Surely if he was working as a maitre d'hotel, it wouldn't be a big problem locating him.
Why did Rinko loathe her mother to such an extent? And don't even mention the immaculate conception story...
Then there was that horror butchery scene.
I am not a vegetarian and not particularly squeamish yet I found the butchering scene, extended for several pages, bordering on nausea. I don't know if it's cultural, but it was truly disturbing.
Slaughtering her wailing pet who is crying in agony, Rinko "tried her best to take it all in". For some reason Rinko imagines that the pig should understand that she is butchered with gratitude and respect.
Later when Rinko cooks the whole feast from just one pig, taking her mother on a cooking tour of the world, I couldn't stop thinking - Just how big was that poor pig? A size of a hippo? Even with all the bits and pieces cooked there were way too many dishes prepared. It was a bit like feeding a crowd of 5000 with two fishes and five loafs of bread. A magical pig. Truly.
Have you read this novel? What did you think of it?