I’ve not been writing reviews for a while now, but I have been reading. If you’re interested, you can take a look at my Goodreads widget over on the left, and below that, within my Reading Challenge, you can get to my Goodreads profile by clicking on my name.
In the spring of 2012, I read Anthony Capella‘s debut novel, The Food of Love. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and have been meaning to read more of his work since then. My last trip to the library included The Various Flavors of Coffee, which promised more of the heady, mouth-watering descriptions of smell and taste that I love, and which were abundant in The Food of Love. I finished it this morning.
(For the record, the cover of my copy has “Flavors” spelled the American way, as I have used it in this post, although Goodreads has the British spelling, which is how the author spells it on his website. Why it should need to be spelled differently in the American release, when ultimately it’s the same language, is beyond me, but they did that with the Harry Potter books as well. That’s another rant for another day, however.)
As for sensory descriptions, this book absolutely delivered. I had no idea coffee could have so many variations, and reading this made me want to become more of a connoisseur. There was less food than coffee, which is to be expected, but it was still there. Mainly, it was being eaten, and not cooked, but one can’t have everything.
The narrator of The Various Flavors of Coffee is a self-professed foolish and vain young man, who spends a great deal of the book having sex, thinking about sex, paying for sex, and trying to convince women to have sex with him.
There is rather more description of those acts than I typically prefer, and somewhat crudely depicted at times, but I suppose not exactly vulgar. While I was put off a bit by the slang terms used by the narrator, they seemed to fit the character, as well as the time and place of the scenes in which they were used, and it was a colorful insight into the colloquialisms of the era in that part of London.
Though I felt that it had a great deal of potential, the plot of this book became somewhat convoluted as it progressed, and is difficult to describe. Robert Wallis, the narrator, begins his journey in London as an unsuccessful poet, is discovered in a café by a coffee merchant, and enters the merchant’s employ as an assistant in creating a system of descriptions for coffees.
This system is intended to serve as a sort of universal guide to, well, the various flavors of coffee, making it easier for folks to buy and sell the stuff over long distances with certainty that they will be getting what they expect.
During the course of this project, Robert falls in love with the daughter of the coffee merchant, who is in fact the brains behind the idea. It seems to be partially this interest that prompts Mr. Pinker, the merchant and father, to send Robert to Africa, to source and hopefully grow a particular type of coffee bean.
Soon enough, Robert is bumbling around Africa, making quite a few errors in judgment, among them finding himself infatuated with the slave of another merchant. Meanwhile, Emily, Mr. Pinker’s daughter, is getting herself embroiled in the suffragist movement in London.
This is partly where I find fault with the story. In my mind, it’s tricky to infuse a story with a strong sociopolitical message, and Mr. Capella has, with this book, tried to get the reader involved in not just one, but three (at least) issues. We have slavery and indentured servitude in Africa, and intermingled with that, we have the women’s rights movement in England — not just suffrage, but domestic issues, and that fun period of time when doctors liked to diagnose women who had emotions and thoughts of their own as “hysterical,” and proceeded to give them all sorts of weird treatments that would cause an uproar in this day and age.
There is a side dish of the conflict between pure capitalism, government regulation of commerce, and the manipulation of the stock market by both federal and private agencies. There is also a brief discussion of abolition in South America. I may have missed something, but I believe that covers the main points.
This all gets rather confusing, and for me, it detracted from the plot, and gave the reader less opportunity to become invested in each of the characters. It seemed that the author was simply trying to do too much in one book. Where one or two social causes can be enriching for a story, the addition of so many was distracting. It gave the entire story a rather unfocused feeling, which was a shame, because until these issues began piling on, I was enthralled.
The first third of the book was excellent. I was hooked within the first thirty pages, and very eager to continue reading. When the plot went into so many directions, it felt as though the story was disintegrating somewhat, and I was disappointed. It never fully recovered from that fragmentation.
The book is well-written in the technical sense, and the language is truly lovely at times, even though often quite randy. I don’t have a problem with that, but it was more fun in The Food of Love, which also had better character development. I enjoyed both books enough to pursue Mr. Capella’s other works. His novel The Wedding Officer seems to have been popular and successful, so I will likely try that next.
Between the two I’ve read so far, I’d have to recommend The Food of Love, unless you’re feeling very political, and interested in learning some new words for a woman’s nether regions that were used in the Victorian era.