I really wanted to like this book. I love food fiction and travelogues, especially anything about France. This book had so much potential, but sadly, it fell short.
Let me begin with a quick synopsis: Hassan Haji is a young Muslim boy living in India. His family owns a very successful restaurant, and Hassan spent many happy childhood days in the family’s kitchen with his beloved grandmother. They’re forced to flee the country due to anti-Muslim uprisings. His mother is killed in a devastating attack, so the extended family moves first to England, then finally in Lumiere, a small town in the French Alps. Hassan’s father is determined to start the first Indian restaurant, with young Hassan as the chef. However, this is met with considerable resistance by Madame Mallory, owner of a highly respected traditional French restaurant across the street. Things get ugly, and are finally resolved when Hassan, a culinary genius, is apprenticed to Madam Mallory.
I got an ARC of this book from Amanda at the Zen Leaf – she didn’t care for it much either, but one of her concerns was that she didn’t like food fiction enough to appreciate it properly. Well, I’ve read lots of food fiction, and I’ve worked as both a professional cook and as a food writer, and I still didn’t like this book.
To me, the book’s biggest fault was the lack of character development. Hassan and his family members felt so flat, so one-dimensional. It seems like Morais did more telling about the characters than showing. For example, Hassan tells us that he can’t have a real loving relationship with a woman because of his mother’s death when he was a boy, but we really don’t get any examples. A lot of family members are introduced, but barely described. However, the food, the restaurants, and the location are very realistic. I think the writer spent so much time on these elements that he forgot about the characters and the plot. And the plot – well, it just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might want to read it, but before Madam Mallory takes Hassan under her wing, she does something terrible, something so bad which I frankly think would be unforgiveable. And the results of this devastating incident are barely mentioned again for the rest of the book! That made absolutely no sense to me.
I know as a reader I should suspend disbelief, but there just seemed to be so many plot holes. I think the writer knew a lot about food and wanted to write a food novel, but it’s pretty obvious to me that he’s never worked in a restaurant. Seriously, there is no way anyone with no actual restaurant experience could suddenly become head chef of a restaurant serving more than 100 individual plated meals per night. Hassan is chosen to be the chef because he spent so much time watching his grandmother cook, but I am sorry, this is nothing like cooking multiple different dishes for diners at a restaurant. It isn’t even like cooking for a huge party of 100 people. (Which is why so many people think they could have their own restaurant because they like to cook. And they usually fail). I don’t care if Hassan is a culinary prodigy, this kind of skill takes years to acquire through hard work. That’s why many chefs usually start at the bottom and work their way up, and a lot of them don’t even have certificates or degrees; they do it the old-fashioned way.
Besides, I'm really getting tired of the prodigy trope -- Hassan is a brilliant chef because he is just born that way, with the ability to cook and taste and pair foods together unlike anyone else, with little training other than hanging around his grandmother's kitchen and selling street food as a teenager! Hassan's talent was just a little too miraculous for me. And it's barely worth mentioning that the author throws in a couple of other annoying things, like random comparisons of food to genitalia, which was so out of character to the rest of the book -- is he borrowing from Henry Miller or just trying to show that he's edgy? Also, one scene includes a character with Tourette's syndrome, seemingly for no other purpose than to insert repeated f-words. Again, this had no connection to the rest of the book, and it was so incongruous that it was irritating.
This book is really short, less than 250 pages. It had some good ideas but it really seemed unfinished. The author, Richard Morais, was an editor at Forbes, but he doesn't seem to realize that just because you can write and you know about food and travel doesn't mean you can write a good novel about food.