by Richard C. Morais
Published by: Alma Books
Review by Vicky
Original artwork by Fossfor
The Hundred Foot Journey is essentially the depiction of a talented young man's rise to culinary fame and success from his humble roots in India to the sophistication of Parisian culture. Written in first person narrative, the book portrays with great accuracy the historical, physical and emotional starting point from which this young man; Hassan, begins his journey into prosperous adulthood. Morais takes the reader on a whirlwind ride through the major events in Hassan's life which not only shape his personality but also open up opportunities and experiences which pave the way to his success. As readers we gain a mixture of insights into Indian lifestyle, culture and family life but also French customs, traditions and social etiquette. The book is full to the brim of recipes, cooking methods and delicious ingredients which not only give the book a well researched backbone of believability but they also reflect the development of Hassan's culinary knowledge and experience throughout his career.
My overriding opinion of this book is that it is a pleasant and enjoyable read but offers little more than that. It is easy to read and at times contains delightful, charming, amusing and occasional appropriately placed painful descriptions and insights into Hassan's life, but the flow of the book seems inconsistent throughout the plot. The opening section of the book set in India is descriptive and draws the reader into Hassan's colourful world and his exuberant, ambitious and hard-working family. This pace continues throughout the portrayal of the family's short stay in England, their arrival and initial experiences in France and Hassan's period of apprenticeship under Mme Mallory. However, from the moment Hassan moves to Paris, the book seems to list with minimal description of the events which fortuitously take place resulting in his rapid rise to glory. We are led to believe that these events were orchestrated in a “Great Expectations” style fashion by Hassan's mentor Mme Mallory but as a reader I felt cheated by this ease of career development. I gained no sense of his struggle or determination to succeed because he was always nudged to success by a silent partner. There is no doubt that his talent and expertise justified and cemented his success but the plot would have achieved greater believability and depth if Hassan had achieved his accolades through his own victory over adversity and in his own right. As a young Asian man he would also unfortunately have been faced with far more racial prejudice than he did and this was an issue which although touched upon by the author, was largely avoided. The basic concept of an Indian man trying to gain acceptance as a French culinary genius could either have been approached as a comic parody or as a realistic cultural commentary but this book achieved neither. It lacked the humorous and sarcastic qualities required to achieve the first of these approaches and avoided the significant real-life adversities necessary to achieve the latter.
The stereotypical caricature style characters in this book are also used and developed in an inconsistent manner. Hassan's family throughout the early part of the book are an integral part of his life; living together, working together, travelling together and supporting one another and yet by mid-way through the book, they are rarely mentioned except in passing or upon their deaths. This could be an intentional reflection on how Hassan's life progressed away from his roots towards his independent future but to the reader it appears as those these influential characters in Hassan's life have been conveniently dropped from the narrative for the purpose of plot progression. The author seems to be rushing and simplifying certain elements of the plot and the lives of certain characters in order to quickly progress the story. He has tried to cram a lot of information and plot development into a relatively short book which makes it seem rushed and shallow in parts. The quality of writing I believe suffered in those parts; where initially the book was vibrant, colourful, descriptive, engaging and absorbing, it became frustrating, simplified and purely informative.
On a personal level I would have liked Hassan to retain more of his own character and Indian roots within his cooking. The book seemed to present the idea that Hassan had talent and that this could best be utilised within the superior culinary world of French cuisine rather than in the exotic tastes and textures of traditional Indian fare. The plot would have been more dynamic if Hassan had been able to give more of himself and his own culture back to French cooking rather than simply absorbing an existing style. I felt that he lost his roots and that his identity was completely transformed when in reality, the two opposing cultures could have had a reciprocal influence on one other.
The latter sections of the Hundred-Foot Journey seemed to regain some of the depth of description, analysis, plot development and meaningful character portrayal which were evident at the beginning of the book. This wave style depiction of a life journey was frustrating in the superficial mid-section but on the other hand allowed the author to keep up the momentum of the book and avoid what could have become tedious descriptions of numerous events. A better balance I believe could have been achieved between this need for pace and story progression, and the depth and writing quality within the book.
In summary, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an interesting and unique tale which conveys hope of achieving success in the most unlikely of circumstances and is pleasurable to read. It is well-researched and full of delectable culinary descriptions. However, the lack of careful construction and the mere glimpses into topics and issues which could have been better developed, in my opinion leave the reader frustrated. It dips its toes into meaningful cultural matters but could so capably have jumped both feet first into them and truly engaged the reader into a story and concept with great potential for significance. This book is a simple, charming tale perfect for an afternoon on the beach but as a challenging, thought-provoking piece of work, it misses the mark.