N.M. Kelby's new novel is so rich in sensory delights, you'll want to savor it bite by bite.
Oddly enough, this richly imagined historical novel is a brash departure from Kelby's previous work, "A Travel Guide for Reckless Hearts," a short-story collection beloved for both its sardonic voice and its elegant forays into the nature of late-in-life love. Lucky for fans, the Minnesota author's trademark wit remains.
In her latest, Kelby infuses new zest into the life of the famous French chef Auguste Escoffier, the man who essentially codified Gallic cookery. Many times, the novel feels like a divine excuse for delving into the mouthwatering world of all things foie gras and escargot; Kelby has certainly done her gastronomical research. Channeling M.F.K. Fisher in the exactitude of her culinary descriptions, Kelby has a foodie's flair for infusing her narrative with so many flavorful details, readers will feel like they're enjoying lavish meals right along with the novel's characters. Mercifully, without all those pesky calories.
Kelby also succeeds in building a story heaped with ample portions of plot development and scene-setting. (Her descriptions of lush surroundings betray a voyeur's eye for interior design in the great French houses and hotels.) As far as characters go, Auguste Escoffier is the perfect historical figure to invite into a novel. Considered the father of modern French haute cuisine, his own rich béarnaise of a life makes him a writer's dream, especially when factoring in a love triangle among Escoffier, his wife, poet Delphine Daffis, and legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt.
"White Truffles in Winter" also has a playful side. Kelby enjoys turning the narrative over to Escoffier himself to pen a fictional "memoir in meals." Here, our host reveals the secrets of his famous Mousse D'Ecrevisses:
"You must first select forty rather large and boisterous crayfish. They must be filled with life, able to snap your small finger with ease. If you need to test this, ask an assistant; that is what they are there for.
"Once they are chosen, open a bottle of Moët. Pour it into a bowl. Add the crayfish. Stand back. They will put up a fight but rest assured that this is a merciful death, one that you would wish upon yourself."
Of course, Escoffier's real writings are still considered a magnificent source for cooks, and Kelby channels the chef's witty style with aplomb. ("Never lose your head, even when faced with great difficulty -- that must be the motto of every chef de cuisine.")
With such quality story ingredients at hand, it was only a matter of time before Escoffier's story was whipped up into the kind of masterpiece readers will want to savor. "White Truffles in Winter" proves a luxurious feast.
Andrea Hoag is a book critic in Lawrence, Kan.