Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton Patterson

May 21, 2010 | No Comments

Once in a while, I begin a new novel and my heart soars. At last, I think, a blessed satire, in a world that has forgotten how to laugh. The opening pages of Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004) by James Hamilton Patterson, are the most biting and entertaining I’ve read in many a moon, and perhaps it was too much to hope that the rest of the book would sustain such giddy heights.
English snob Gerald Samper lives in Italy, DIY-tinkering with his villa and indulging his gift for experimental cookery. A self-described “amanuensis to knuckle-heads,” Gerald is a ghost-writer for celebratory sportsmen and pop-stars – cads and whackos one and all (and if you do read beyond the peerless opening, then ensure you sift his suggestions for the title of a memoir of a Formula One racing driver: The Absolute Pits, The Chequered Fag etc…). Into his honey-hued idyll comes Marta, from some God-forsaken corner of the former Soviet Empire, who seems determined, despite her atrocious English and Gerald’s cold shoulder, to be neighborly. This “opera buffa” as the New York Times described it, unfolds from the point of view of both Marta and Gerald, the plot careering from silly to nonsensical buoyed aloft by Patterson’s wit.
Gerald’s recipes are shocking in the manner of effective horror movies – garlic ice-cream, rabbit in custard – and the devil is in his details. You can’t stop reading even as your gut begins to heave. The mere thought of “mussels in chocolate”, conjures an unwelcome, tactile image of snotters in poo. Frankly, the novel’s biggest flaw is that it’s much more fun to be inside Gerald’s head than inside Marta’s, the sheer brilliance of this creation crushes the other characters like herbs in a pestle. Marta’s entanglements with Baltic mafioso is a complete yawn, and sometimes the humor crosses the boundary; the more believable the contents of the hellish recipes the funnier they are, but once household pets slip into the ingredients sniggers tend to melt away. Who is this James Hamilton Patterson, I asked myself? According to a profile at The Guardian, he is prolific and reclusive, and Fernet Branca isn’t typical of his output. He termed it his “Tuscminster” farce about that Mortimer-esque brigade of Italo-phile British tourists who invade Italy every summer, ignore the locals and buy too much brash pottery. In conclusion, Cooking with Fernet Branca is like the curate’s egg, only fabulous in parts but worth cracking open and scrambling around inside. I particularly want to thank Pattersen for the sheer delight, the whimsical nastiness of those first few pages, for a moment there I really felt that I was Under the Tuscan Sun, or should I say Under the Son of a Tuscan…