Friday, November 28, 2008

The Food Taster by Peter Elbling

When Ugo DiFonte and his teenaged daughter Miranda are snatched from their farm and spirited away to Duke Federico Basillione DiVincelli’s estate, Ugo thinks life can’t get any worse… until he is forced to replace the recently de-tongued royal food taster. Now Ugo must stay alive - a difficult prospect considering the prince’s myriad of enemies and their poisons - to protect Miranda from her suitors and desires, and somehow hold the unruly court together.
A bestseller in ten countries, in this novel of gastronomical delight and brilliant wit Peter Elbling remarkably captures the sights, sounds, and tastes of sixteenth-century Italy with the story of a peasant rising to extraordinary and death-defying acts of grace.”

I’ve recently read somewhere that Peter Elbling is a screenwriter. While reading the book I didn’t know that but I noticed immediately how he has a beautifully descriptive way of write that makes it very easy for the reader to “see” the action taking place. In fact, now that I know that, I can’t help thinking how easy it would be to adapt the story for the movies and how well it would work.

Unfortunately, as a fiction book I thought it had too many plot twists, too much action if you will, and after a while I found my attention wondering in other directions.

The book is written as a memoir by the fictional Ugo, food taster to the mighty Duke Federico, and its set in Italy in the 16th century. Ugo has had a hard life before being caught by Federico’s guards. He was abused by his father and brother, saw his mother hang herself, got married only to see his wife dying in childbirth and leaving him with a baby. His daughter Miranda soon becomes the center of his life and when he becomes Duke Federico’s food taster she goes with him to the castle.

Duke’s Federico court is full of intrigues; he is an autocratic ruler, loud and violent. He hates his wife and his mother in law, keeps mistresses and plans orgies of food and entertainment which often ends with someone dead or humiliated. There is a real fear of poison and of being killed by the Duke in a fit of rage, Ugo soon tries to find allies to prevent both situations but he can never find peace. He falls in love with Agnese, a washer woman from the Palace but she is killed, his daughter grows and attracts the attention of Federico’s main cook which displeases Ugo, a spurt of plague leads him to send Miranda away for her own safety, eventually she returns but she is not the same and soon falls under the spell of Ugo’s brother who reappears practicing some sort of witchcraft...

I can see the appeal of reading something different and bringing some freshness to the genre but I felt that there were too many things going on, like everything was rushed, and since Ugo is not particularly likeable it was a struggle to keep reading his life’s story. The author also resorts to crude language very often for effect but after a while it feels like an obvious device and it’s annoying rather than effective.

Grade: 3/5

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