I think there is real pleasure in discovering a book randomly on the library shelves, being intrigued by the title and deciding to bring it home. There are no expectations based on other people's opinions and when it turns out to be a winner - what joy!
Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is about three women whose stories criss-cross between Paris in the 1890's at the height of the Dreyfuss affair, France under enemy occupation in 1942, and present day France and Canada.
It begins in 1942 with the parents of young Sarah Bensimon desperately doing everything they can to get their little girl out of Paris. Eventually they succeed and Sarah ends up making the long journey to Canada and being fostered by a childless couple in Toronto. Marrying into an orthodox Jewish family, she takes refuge in her kitchen, creating kosher versions of classic French cuisine.
The narrator is a contemporary Canadian, Marie Prevost, who spent her first thirteen years in Paris before returning to her father's home country. Speaking both French and English fluently she becomes an interpreter and after a disappointing love affair sets off to Paris to research Marcel Proust but instead she finds in the archives of the Bibliotheque Nationale the 'unpublished diary' of his mother, Madame Jeanne Proust.
|Madame Proust and sons - Marcel and Robert|
In the excerpts from her diary we find a Jewish mother who over-protects and over-indulges her eldest son. She worries about his health and his diet, his late nights and unsuitable friends, and despairs at his lack of enthusiasm for finding a career.
" Marcel speaks no more of the idea of a novel, thank goodness. These projects are only a waste of time."Madame Proust not only records details of everyday domestic affairs and the well-known literary figures that visit her home, but also comments on what is happening in the world outside.......like the Dreyfuss affair and Emile Zola's inflammatory J'accuse.
Obviously well-researched it makes fascinating reading and I have to admit the diary was my favourite part of the book but I also enjoyed the stories of Sarah and Marie - something that doesn't always happen when an author moves between different time periods.
Kate Taylor links the three women through life experiences big and small, the human responses that never change through the generations. The relationship between parents and children, the dinner menus Madame Proust describes and the French food Sarah cooks. Madame Proust takes a joy-ride on the new Metro - fifty years later Sarah does the same in Toronto.
I loved it enough to want to know if Kate Taylor had written more and discovered that Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen won the 2003 Commonwealth Prize for best first fiction (Canada/Caribbean) as well as other Canadian book awards. That she is a Canadian author is an added, and unexpected, bonus as I can count this book into my Canadian Book Challenge total.
Related post - When One Book Leads to Another