The Cheffe by Marie NDiaye. October 29, 2019. Alfred A. Knopf, 287 p. ISBN: 9780525520474. Int Lvl: AD; Rdg Lvl: AD.
From the Booker Prize-nominated author of Three Strong Women: an elegant, hypnotic new novel about a legendary French female chef–the facts her life, the nearly ineffable qualities of her cooking, and the obsessive, sometimes destructive desire for purity of taste and experience that shaped her life.
Continuing her tradition of writing provocative fiction about fascinating women, here Marie NDiaye gives us the story of a Great Female Chef–a chef who was celebrated as one of the best in a world where men dominate, and the way that her pursuit of love, pleasure, and gustatory delights helped shape her life and career. Told from the perspective of her former assistant (and unrequited lover), now an aged chef himself, here is the story of a woman’s quest to the front of the kitchen–and the extraordinary journey she takes along the way.
Potentially Sensitive Areas: Mild sexual themes
Booklist (October 1, 2019 (Vol. 116, No. 3))
Lauded French-Senegalese author NDiaye (Ladivine, 2016) introduces the otherwise-unnamed “Cheffe,” a woman so consumed with creating unique culinary delicacies that this desire overrules everything else in her life. Her story is told by an unnamed narrator, a former student and admirer who has an obsession of his own: single-minded dedication to recounting the Cheffe’s story along with his own interpretations. As the novel progresses, readers learn that although the Cheffe enjoys some aspects of the fame that her culinary prowess affords her, she is stubbornly secretive about the rest of her life. When she becomes pregnant and must choose between her work and her baby, she ultimately decides to leave the child to her family, and focus on opening a restaurant: a choice that comes back to haunt her in the future in ways that readers won’t have predicted. Hauntingly original, and told in a conversational tone that quickly makes readers feel they are the narrator’s confidants, this is another entry in NDiaye’s already impressive volume of work.
Kirkus Reviews (August 15, 2019)
A saint in the kitchen: the legend of a culinary genius recounted by her most devoted disciple. “Every day I get something from what my love made of me, and if I can live my life on good terms with myself it’s only because my exclusive, absolute, imperishable love transformed the boy I was, conventionally eager to succeed, ordinary, pragmatic, into a young man capable of marveling and sacrificing.” To present the story of a renowned restaurateur known only as the Cheffe, NDiaye (Ladivine, 2016, etc.) has created a uniquely unreliable (and unnamed) narrator, the chef’s former apprentice and No. 1 fan, now living in boozy retirement on the Spanish Mediterranean. In his hands, the life of the Cheffe is a hagiographic fairy tale, complete with an ugly witch—the Cheffe’s daughter, whom the narrator is still furiously fighting for favor even long after his mentor’s death. “I have my own opinion, you’ve met her, you’ve seen that unpleasant, sterile woman, arrogant and vain and now trying to peddle specious anecdotes about the Cheffe to the whole wide world.” The preferred version of the story—the narrator’s version—begins once upon a time in the village of Sainte-Bazeille, where a sweet little girl was born to destitute farm laborers. They put her to work in the fields, then sent her away as a teenager to work for some wealthy weirdos in a neighboring town. Obsessed with food, the Clapeaus install the girl in their kitchen, where she discovers her vocation: “Now, moved and joyous, she realized her body was made up of many little animals who’d learned to work flawlessly all on their own, and who, that afternoon, happy, modest, at once obediently and quietly enterprising, showed her all their savoir faire, working as a tight-knit team that in a sense excluded the Cheffe for her own good.” My, my. The mice and bluebirds that sewed Cinderella’s ball gown take a backseat to these industrious creatures. What specious anecdotes could that awful daughter possibly come up with to match these? So eccentric, long-winded, and overblown, it’s almost endearing.
About the Author
Marie NDiaye was born in Pithiviers, France, in 1967; spent her childhood with her French mother (her father was Senegalese); and studied linguistics at the Sorbonne. She started writing when she was twelve or thirteen years old and was only eighteen when her first work was published. In 2001 she was awarded the prestigious Prix Femina literary prize for her novel Rosie Carpe, and in 2009, she won the Prix Goncourt for Three Strong Women.
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