Meringue, by Christine Lemieux - 5 Stars
The author’s aim is sparklingly clear as she’s improvising upon a fool-proof literary recipe where it’s supposed to be inconceivable for a reviewer to say anything apart from “a delightfully charming romantic tale in a gastronomic setting whose plot threads tie together as neat as a string of garlic in the kitchen of your dreams”. After all, there’s a mouth-watering reference to cuisine or ingredients on almost every page, picture postcard scenery, cultural mystique, a best friend with indulgence problems, three daughters bobbing about on a loose end of twine like romantic magnets in sensible shoes, unsuccessful shots at independence from which the magic valley always draws them back, an elder generation highly skilled with the lobster bisque, a sense of danger from a competitor setting up shop next door and a drifting family business that needs to wake up, urgently.
This pattern works, as we already know from Ang Lee’s mighty Eat, Drink, Man, Woman with its life changing announcements and Joanne Harris’s Chocolat with its sprinkle of tempting delights, both of which were projects that exuded charm from every dripping piping nozzle. According to the Chinese Book of Rites, the primary desires are to eat, drink and have each other on the kitchen worktop (paraphrased), although desire strangely carries more tension in a pastel clean romance like this. Although Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence tells an entirely different story, so they can’t be compared in that way, both that and Meringue build layers of aromas, spices, bountiful colours, textures and juices on the tongue to marinate the reader into the world they’ve constructed. The author isn’t connecting you through thought, they’re toying with your senses, curling a finger into your hair, caressing your neck and whispering “I cooked something for you. Will you stay?” Time passes differently in these idyllic faerie dells and, like Brigadoon, no one ever leaves for long.
Meringue is a book intended to pull the same “recipe for food and love” trick as the works above, so without comparing and contrasting it with the other two, does that happen? Now let’s set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to see whether it is humanly possible to read Meringue by Christine Lemieux and not make a meringue at the end.
“But it is vital to not be mistaken; sweets are nothing other than a marriage of simple ingredients enhanced by the use of sugar.”
The first thing to consider is the premise. The reason why the family got into meringues in the first place is because they had a lot of sugar and the reason they had a lot of sugar is not only elegant and credible but I can imagine it might have actually happened, so that’s a top piece of writing right there. A family line emerges and time changes all, including countries, then we’re into the pine-scented air and bitter cherries of a new Eden, French Canada.
Then, and the egg cracked, an event has befallen the owner which has caused them to stop making meringues overnight, as a metaphor to reflect something that has gone very wrong in life, a disturbance in the fuzzy aura of candyfloss happiness that these characters naturally deserve, even the men, but there’s always a wasp. The key to the whole plot, meringue, affects all. If, as usual, the kitchen is a metaphor for the spiritual heart and comfort of a family, the absence of meringue in a restaurant called Meringue is a devastating scream in the wilderness. Crikey, another good piece of writing that’s not over-concocted.
A heavy swathe of this book is about suppressed personal feelings between the women of the family and their knights errant, can I, can’t I, how is it possible I feel this way, make a date, break a date, fall into those eyes, I’m lost, no, I’ve changed my mind, rejected, the shame, a life alone, despair, I’ve made the worst mistake of my life, come back!, I’m overcome, I’m yours, whisk me. Succulence does need time to develop, so these threads take a lot of pages to work through as characters who can’t express their feelings associate their love with edible pleasures. How to make a Canadian quilt? Is it just me or are these characters all different kinds of attractive puddings, wholesome ingredients of the story that could go together in different combinations?
With apologies to the author, I have to find some small aspect to challenge the perfection of all this or the other critics would circle around me, turn their backs and snip off my buttons [how do you do that by the way? Without looking?]: In Meringue, the technique and artistry of gourmet food preparation is not elaborated upon, which suggests it is more of a lifestyle romance than a cook book, which is fair enough or I would have bought a cook book, but I think that’s a shame because I wanted to interact with this book, to hear a reproducible and authentic sauce constructed one fresh herb at a time, including how an experienced professional saves it, with élan, when something messes up. When a life messes up, can they salvage and transform it in the same way, perhaps discovering something better? Can calories be teased into philosophy? There’s a lot of talk about food and the craft is shown to have happened as trays come out of the oven but the final product is there with its fancy name but without the method, so the author has embraced and communicated their passion for food (associated with love and home) but perhaps is less passionate about the process of converting raw ingredients into a dish. Yes, it’s an art-form but show us some sculpting and not just the sculpture, as Ang Lee’s master chef Chu does when he inflates the chicken with his breath and Juliette Binoche does when she shows her understudy how to make Nipples of Venus. This doesn’t spoil the book; it’s just me being pedantic.
Anyway, there was one exception: “The eggs should be separated cold but need to be at room temperature when you whisk them.” Knowledge is a wonderful thing, unless reading this book costs me a tooth. I’ve already looked up the chef that all of this stems from, Francois Massialot (1660-1733), and started foodie side-tracking. He was the first to publish the crème brûlée recipe as well, so there’s the sequel already potted into a ramekin for you.
I was going to give this feel-good story four and a bit stars but then it had a great ending, so up it went. “At that moment the first firecracker whizzed up into the dark sky, exploded and sprouted into a multitude of luminous trails, falling down like dazzling raindrops toward the ground.”
This isn’t about a chef inhabiting a zone of artistry and weaving magic with their spatula. This is about a woman who has struggled all her life for her children, to give them a loving heart for a home and make them complete, at last. Meringue is where the familial circle starts and where it all ends and, of course, it has to have a gooey middle.
Is it humanly possible to read Meringue by Christine Lemieux and not make a meringue at the end? Apparently it isn’t because the oven’s on. I’m so impressionable.