I’m nearly to the end of Kate Christensen’s latest, The Great Man, having last summer devoured her novels In the Drink and The Epicure’s Lament. This one is good, too, and has me particularly impressed by Christensen’s range with characters. In The Great Man these include the seventy- and eighty-something wife, mistress, and sister of Oscar Feldman, a recently deceased painter whose biographers have started in. It’s hardly original to note that women of a certain age don’t get a lot of nuanced or lively representation in fiction, but it’s true. In Christensen’s novel, each of them is fascinating company: Maxine, the headstrong sister whose art can give Oscar’s a run for its money; Teddy, the proud mistress; and Abigail, the homebound wife who may not have suffered as much as you’d think in the face of her husband’s infidelities. That goes for Teddy’s best friend Lila, too. For those of us who aspire to be interesting old women someday, the novel is awfully reassuring.
The Great Man has also made me sit up and take notice of what, with this novel, no longer seems incidental in Christensen’s work: food. As you might surmise, it plays a substantial role in The Epicure’s Lament, whose title character Hugo is an able and exacting cook. In this novel sumptuous meals are everywhere, unattached to any particular character, and hungrily described. Teddy cooks, but Maxine and Abigail find themselves at a dinner party and restaurant, respectively, where the food is both prepared and described meticulously. It’s almost enough to make me press the book on the Gurgling Cod, who does in fact have a birthday coming up.
Here’s a taste: a dinner party scene that put me in mind of Tom Wolfe’s famous satirical take on 1980s haute cuisine in Bonfire of the Vanities.
The soup bowls were whisked away and plates of summery salad replaced them: a Japanese woodcut sea of curly pale green frisee lettuce on which floated almond slice rafts, each holding a tiny, near-translucent poached baby shrimp as pink and naked as a newborn. Crisp blanched haricots verts darted through the sea like needle-nosed fish. Cerise-rimmed radish slices bobbed here and there like sea foam. The dressing was a briny green lime juice and olive oil emulsion. Maxine stared at the thing, trying to imagine the person who had so painstakingly made it. It would be demolished in three bites.
Just because it’s absurd doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be delicious.