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The Debt to Pleasure ()

Whitbread Prize Winners (1996)

This debut novel by the British book reviewer and food critic, John Lanchester, owes a roughly equal debt to Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin's The Physiology of Taste, perhaps the most revered book on cooking ever written, and to Vladimir Nabokov's classics Lolita and Pale Fire, with a dash of Remains of the Day thrown in. The book starts out as mere "culinary reflections" by a brilliant, arrogant, pedantic, almost grotesquely loquacious Englishman named Tarquin Winot :

    Over the years, many people have pleaded with me to commit to paper my thoughts on the subject
    of food.  Indeed the words 'Why don't you write a book about it?,' uttered in an admittedly wide
    variety of tones and inflections, have come to possess something of the quality of a mantra--one
    tending to be provoked by a disquisition of mine on, for instance, the composition of an
    authoritative cassoulet, or Victorian techniques for baking hedgehogs in clay.

These reflections, structured around specific menus, and presented over the course of a travelogue, are fascinating, as they veer off onto obscure tangents, and slyly funny, as Winot completely dominates the book with his distinctive voice and maddeningly egotistical monologues. But the reader quickly comes to distrust him and eventually to suspect his motives.  He is after all traveling in disguise, seems to be following a young couple, and reveals the unfortunate ends met by his brother, a famous artist, and several others over the course of his life.  These facts, combined with the elitist morality he espouses, raise some uncomfortable questions about what exactly Mr. Winot is up to here.

Unlike Pale Fire or Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis, in the end there's not much doubt left about the central events of the novel.  Mr. Lanchester is less interested in preserving the mystery than in the hugely entertaining character he's created.  Tarquin Winot, even if he is a sociopath, is a very amusing one.  And Mr Lanchester has rare common sense enough to keep the book brief,  ending the "gastro-historico-psycho-autobiographico-anthropico-philosophic lucubrations" before Winot's act grows tiresome.

If you always knew the Frugal Gourmet had something to hide.  If Martha Stewart's icy WASP demeanor has always seemed like a front to you.  Read The Debt to Pleasure and in its deliciously insidious pages have your worst fears confirmed, about the hideous evil that lurks behind these facades of condescending homemaking competence.


Grade: (A-)


John Lanchester Links:
-PROFILE: John Lanchester: The acclaimed novelist on secrets and lies: John Lanchester only discovered after his mother's death that she had been a nun. (Christina Patterson, 23 March 2007, Independent)

Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Mr Phillips  by John Lanchester (Scotland Online)
    -ESSAY : How to Read (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -ESSAY : Diary (John Lanchester, April 21, 2000, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of Sichuan Cookery by  Fuchsia Dunlop (John Lanchester, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of Hannibal by Thomas Harris (John Lanchester , London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Nudist on the Late Shift by Po Bronson (John Lanchester, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and  Meaning in an Ordinary Church by Margaret Visser (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  Paris to the Moon: a Family in France by Adam Gopnik  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  The World of Caffeine: the Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug by Bennett Alan  Weinberg and Bonnie K Bealer  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of   Ornamentalism: How the  British Saw Their Empire by David Cannadine  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  The Body Artist by Don DeLillo  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  Hey Yeah Right Get A Life  by Helen Simpson  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  Patrick O'Brian: A Life  Revealed by Dean King  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  Gertrude and Claudius by  John Updike  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of  Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson  (John Lanchester, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of THE FROG By John Hawkes (John Lanchester , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  SHOPGIRL By Steve Martin. (John Lanchester, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TEN WOMEN WHO SHOOK THE WORLD By Sylvia Brownrigg (John Lanchester, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE CONFESSIONS OF MYCROFT HOLMES A Paper Chase. By Marcel Theroux  (John Lanchester, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Feb 8, 2001 John Lanchester: The Land of Accidents, NY Review of Books
       White Teeth by Zadie Smith
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : John Lanchester Author May 13, 2000  (Michael Feldman, Whattayaknow)
    -PROFILE : Seasoned with memories: Flavors and aromas can conjure up people, places and even a novel (Barbara Hoover, April 23, 1996, Detroit News )
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester (Henry Holt and Company)
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester (Penguin Putnam)
    -ARCHIVES : John Lanchester (booksonline uk)
    -ARCHIVES : John Lanchester (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of The Debt to Pleasure By John Lanchester (RICHARD BERNSTEIN , NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Debt to Pleasure By John Lanchester (Frank J. Prial , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Debt To Pleasure  by John Lanchester (Gary Amdahl, Hungry Mind)
    -REVIEW : of The Debt to Pleasure (Jam)
    -REVIEW : of The Debt to Pleasure (Sara Rance, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of Debt to Pleasure (S. English Knowles, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Debt to Pleasure  (Kate McDonnell, Net Net)
    -REVIEW : of Debt to Pleasure (Rebecca Cook, Tucson Weekly)
    -REVIEW : Oct 17, 1996 Michael Wood: Other People's Wives, NY Review of Books
       John's Wife by Robert Coover
       The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
    -REVIEW : of MR. PHILLIPS By John Lanchester (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of  MR. PHILLIPS By John Lanchester (Jennifer Schuessler, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Mr Phillips by John  Lanchester (Maggie Gee, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : Jun 29, 2000 Gabriele Annan: Close to the Edge, NY Review of Books
       Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester (Tom Shone, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips by John Lanchester (Roz Shea, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Rob Thomas, Capital Times)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Reader's Paradise)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (ANDRE MAYER, Eye)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Philip Hensher, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Mr. Phillips (Rachel Cusk, This is London)

    -xrefer - Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme (1755 - 1826)
    -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin : Course of Life
    -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin :  April 1, 1755
   -ESSAY : The Gastronomic Servings of Brillat-Savarin (Amanda Watson Schnetzer, The Washington Times, July 11, 1999)