fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood fantasy book reviewsThe Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (pseudonym of Jon Courtenay Grimwood)

Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumont is first and foremost a chef. Even the title chef is a gross understatement. Jean-Marie is a connoisseur on an adventure to taste as many different things as he can in his lifetime. As The Last Banquet opens up, we find Jean-Marie as an orphan sitting by a dung heap munching on beetles. With each beetle consumed, he notes that they often taste like what they’d consumed prior to being eaten. There’s a very wry, subtle humor throughout the story, and it shines in the beginning where Jean-Marie eats a beetle before a nearby man can ask him to share, as if everyone eats beetles.

Jean-Marie will eat anything he can get his hands on — frog, loris, snake, dog, cat, lion, you name it, he’s eaten it, raw or cooked. Intermittently throughout the book, Grimwood has placed entries of Jean-Marie’s cookbook, including ingredients, steps to cook said meal, and what the meal tastes like. Funnily enough, more often than not the meal tastes like chicken, and he reasons that if he’d been weaned on mutton, most meals would taste like mutton, and if he’d been weaned on venison, most would taste so, and so on. d’Aumont is a particular proponent of cheese, moldy and not, and he beautifully describes his favorite, Roquefort, in saying:

It tasted as I remembered, of mould and horses’ hooves clipping on brick and dung beetles and sun.

Not only does Jean-Marie crave the taste of any animal organ, hearts, tongues, and all — he seeks the taste from every other locale possible — from dung to urine to milk from a woman’s breast, from blood to the taste of sex — he wants it all.

The Last Banquet is full of emotion — not necessarily from the narrator (who is narrating from old age) — but in the prose. Grimwood writes beautifully, as befitting the time prior to the French Revolution. There were some surprisingly dark passages that made my eyes widen in disbelief, some depressing parts, parts that made me angry, parts that made me happy, and there were parts that were filled with raw sensuality and love. Grimwood encompassed more emotion in The Last Banquet than I’ve encountered in any story I’ve read this recently.

Through Jean-Marie’s attendance in a school for boys and later a military academy, he meets lifelong friends, and through friends he meets lovers and many other kinds of people. There are interesting characters you will hate and love throughout the story, including appearances by greats such as Voltaire and Ben Franklin. We follow Jean-Marie through love and loss, thick and thin, as he rises through the ranks of the French society in the 18th century that Grimwood depicted so very well.

Having a solid amount of knowledge of the Revolutionary era of France, I found myself smiling at how much of the detail written was picture-perfect — The Last Banquet is an ideal representation of the rising class tension, the food shortages, and the decay of French society at the time. From peasants covered in filth giving Jean-Marie and his compatriots angry looks to men and women alike squatting to relieve themselves out in the open without a care in the world. This accuracy made the story feel incredibly real to me.

The sheer scale of The Last Banquet is one of its defining features. Grimwood doesn’t give us a glimpse into Jean-Marie’s life, or even a decade. He gives us the entire thing — decades and decades of d’Aumont’s life. He also includes very thought-provoking material, one such example is when Jean-Marie says:

I’m not sure the people can cope without the idea of God …Without spiritual heights to which they can aspire…

The conversation continues with talk of what the causes of religion are, what the world would be like without it, and other things.

There is so much wonderful content in The Last Banquet and Mr. Grimwood shattered my expectations when I bought the book on a whim. The Last Banquet is the story of Jean-Marie Charles d’Aumont — a man on the quest of taste, going wherever it takes him, from an orphan to a diplomat of the king, country to country, flavor to flavor. I cannot recommend it enough and, having not read Grimwood’s previous work, I’ve got some catching up to do before he puts out another marvelous piece of work like The Last Banquet.

Publication Date: October 1, 2013. Set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment, the delectable decadence of Versailles, and the French Revolution, The Last Banquet is an intimate epic that tells the story of one man’s quest to know the world through its many and marvelous flavors. Jean-Marie d’Aumout will try anything once, with consequences that are at times mouthwatering and at others fascinatingly macabre (Three Snake Bouillabaisse anyone? Or perhaps some pickled Wolf’s Heart?). When he is not obsessively searching for a new taste d’Aumout is a fast friend, a loving husband, a doting father, and an imaginative lover. He befriends Ben Franklin, corresponds with the Marquis de Sade and Voltaire, becomes a favorite at Versailles, thwarts a peasant uprising, improves upon traditional French methods of contraception, plays an instrumental role in the Corsican War of Independence, and constructs France’s finest menagerie. But d’Aumout’s every adventurous turn is decided by his at times dark obsession to know all the world’s flavors before that world changes irreversibly. As gripping as Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, as gloriously ambitious as Daniel Kehlman’s Measuring the World, and as prize-worthy as Andrew Miller’s Pure, The Last Banquet is a hugely appealing novel about food and flavor, about the Age of Reason and the ages of man, and our obsessions and about how, if we manage to survive them, they can bequeath us wisdom and consolation in old age.