As the saying goes, there are no new stories under the sun, only new tellings. To that end, Nancy Coons accomplishes much in her culinary novel The Feasting Season because she views French history through the lens of its celebrated cuisine, and likewise traces culinary arts back to their regions of origin, along with their battles, coups, resistances and religious festivals. "The history is in the food. The food is the history," Coons' heroine muses after her spiritual and romantic awakening midway through the story.
The Feasting Season hit the shelves earlier this fall, but landed quietly—no doubt due in part to Coons' death from a long illness shortly before publication. Coons was a longtime food journalist whom I first encountered in last February's issue of Saveur, where she published a vivid, transporting description of crepe making in the French Calvados region.
Like that article, The Feasting Season is a sensuous, luscious read, one foodies and fiction aficionados will be glad they got their hands on before the inevitable movie is made (how about Diane Lane and Vincent Cassel?). American travel writer Meg Parker lives the expat dream in a 300-year-old farmhouse in the Lorraine countryside, in northeast France. From her bunker in the basement, she writes tourist guides and French textbooks for American schoolchildren. She also fantasizes about a life apart from Nigel, her callous, British banker husband and their two young children.
Her publisher offers her a new assignment to write a book about French history, which pairs her with photographer Jean-Jacques Chabrol, man of mystery, manners and a walking encyclopedia of food and wine knowledge. Halfway through the novel, the creative and sexual tension that has been building during their shared culinary and travel experiences steamrolls into a stormy, no-holds-barred love affair. In the end—you guessed it—Meg must choose between traditional values of home, family and marriage and that of adventurous love and life on the road with Jean-Jacques, or J-J (Zhay-Zhay), as he's known to his friends.
The novel tells the timeless tale of a stale, passionless marriage shaken up by a bohemian lover's presence and attentions. Along with Meg, we buy it. We are wooed, possibly because the wild sex and escape-from drudgery-through-travel themes are anchored in the concrete details of history and geography, as in the showdown between husband and lover at Agincourt; and as in the evocative flavors and fragrances of specific food and wine (sizzling duck fat, buttery langoustines, chewy rustic bread dipped in walnut oil, and the precise tasting experience of a 1961 Romanée-Conti, where mind and tongue are "lost in a world of wine").
The manuscript portions that Meg delivers to her publisher are a far cry from her assignment, instead resembling a novelist's free-associative mingling of fiction and fact. These portions of the book have a confessional, diary-like aspect that allow us to taste, see and feel her journey—both imaginative and real.
The Feasting Season is an entertaining page turner, but not without its flaws in structure and characterization. The 12 chapters are labeled and divided with military terms such as "The War Room," "Home Front," "Full Retreat" and "Armistice." While the extended metaphor is inviting and interesting, the parallel between historical episodes and the spiritual and emotional battle Meg is fighting with her emerging passions is occasionally overwrought.
Each chapter is also divided into time markers meant to headline a journal/diary entry, which come across as a little too pristine and tidy at times. Even the most dedicated journal writers rarely have lives so perfectly recordable as "Friday, February 7, 5 am." This top-of-the-hour punctuality in diary keeping is at odds with the eclectic use of technology (cell phones, laptops, internet, digital cameras, text messaging) and funky juxtapositions of time and technology with vintage clothing and cars, which create otherwise enjoyable elements of setting.
Furthermore, the characterizations are sometimes unimaginative and inconsistent. Meg's husband Nigel quotes Shakespeare day and night but has no tenderness for anyone until his sea change at the end, and can't even remember how old his own son is. This novel also relies on a predictably wise grandmother figure in whom Meg confides, who gives her impeccably sane and sage advice.
We forgive the flaws in The Feasting Season much as its characters forgive each other and themselves through shared meals and breaking bread: "forgiveness through food," as Meg says in several places. Without spoiling the denouement, readers should be forewarned that the book's twisted happy ending is a dark surprise, but the characters do seem to have evolved enough for Coons to earn this ending.