Chosen by one of my book groups; this is a novel which promises a lot, but in my opinion delivers very little. I had had high hopes of The Hundred-Foot Journey, I had assumed that it must be good if they made a film of it – perhaps that is naïve, there are after all, plenty of terrible films out there (I have since been told the film isn’t up to much either). It is however a fairly quick read, and pretty undemanding, so I actually managed to finish it in a little over 24 hours – the third part of the book is rather better thankfully, and there are some nice moments in the story which follows – but I’ll get to that later. The hundred-foot journey of the title is the distance between two restaurants in a small French alpine town. One restaurant is a traditional two star French restaurant, run by an ageing chef; Madam Mallory, with exacting standards and a temperament to match, the second an Indian restaurant run by a family of Indian immigrants. The distance between the two businesses represents the distance and the differences between cultures and traditions.
“A lot of emotion went into that hundred-foot journey, cardboard suitcase in hand, from one side of Lumière’s boulevard to the other.”
The novel is divided into four main sections; entitled, Mumbai, London, Lumiѐre and Paris, I felt only one of these sections was good, the first two are quite weak, and the fourth section while finishing the story of our narrator Hassan off really nicely, was for me less interesting. The story is narrated by Hassan Haji, who as the novel opens is a young boy living in Mumbai (born there twenty years before it was so re-named). He relates how his grandfather and father strove to make their living in the street food industry in Mumbai, and how that leads them to open the first of their restaurants. When Hassan’s mother is tragically killed the family leave India and after spending a couple of years in London, they find themselves in a small French town called Lumiѐre, where they purchase an old estate and open an Indian restaurant directly across the street from La Saule Pleureur, which has been both home and business to Gertrude Mallory for over thirty years. Relations between the two restaurants begin badly and become even worse. However, Gertrude Mallory recognises true talent when she sees it, and on a trip across the road the check out the opposition, she realises that Hassan is possessed of that kind of talent that few chefs can really boast. Hassan is eventually taken under the wing of Chef Mallory, he moves across the road, and starts to learn everything that Mallory can teach him. Hassan’s instruction under Chef Mallory, leads him to even greater successes in Paris, meeting the greatest friend of his life in another Michelin starred chef who becomes his landlord, when Hassan finally opens his own restaurant.
I actually rather enjoyed the section of the novel set in Lumiѐre, here is a much stronger and authentic sense of place, and the story of the two families sparring is well done – I would have probably liked the novel better if this section had been lengthened and perhaps told in greater depth to fill the entire novel. Madam Mallory and her manager Henri Leblanc are entertaining and believable creations and I would have enjoyed following them and hearing a little of their back story.
Honestly I do hate writing about why I disliked a book – only I feel it honest to do so. For me there are a number of problems with this book. Firstly the beginning (with the Mumbai setting) is just awful (sorry) the Indian characters speak to one another in a terrible sing-song broken English (why?) which is at best toe-curling. The sense of place is very in-authentic – I just didn’t believe that I was in India. Whether that is due to the author himself not being Indian I don’t know. Several characters – mainly the Indian characters – were wholly unconvincing and rather two dimensional, the French characters however in the later section of the book are by contrast much better drawn. I felt some of the Indian characters to be a little stereotypical, and that irritated me. Maybe I was in a particularly cynical frame of mind while I was reading this, but there are little nuggets of “wisdom” peppered throughout the book which leapt out at me – as I couldn’t help but assume they are meant to – they irritated me too.
“But even in hell there are moments when the light reaches you.”
Really? *raises eyebrows* A novel about food really should be more satisfying than this one proved to be – some of the descriptions are really quite nice, but they just didn’t hit the spot for me. My book group meets to discuss this one this evening, and I am looking forward to hearing what everyone else thinks, maybe if everyone else loved it I’ll just keep quiet.