Food preparation and endless tears. You’d figure you were watching Master Chef…
Writing novels is hard. Telling stories is hard. Getting published is indescribably hard. Hannah Tunnicliffe, to her credit, has been published as an author now three times. Good for her, I say. She’s overcome the obstacles many have not.
Which is not to say that A French Wedding is a particularly good novel; it isn’t. Far from it, it’s often contrived, pretentious, melodramatic nonsense (arguments and inner turmoil, angst and tears intercut with the what would bear an uncanny resemblance to the contents of the June 2011 Gourmet Traveler). But it was published. So there’s obviously something I’ve missed.
If you go to the movies at certain independent cinema chains or their affiliates, there’s an ad for Brown Brothers wine, which features a table full of smarmy hipsters who take turns at ‘clever’ when given prompts from a box of cards as to how to steer the conversation. It doesn’t do that good a job at selling the product, as what they’re saying, essentially, is: “These chinless tossers are so socially bereft they can’t speak to each other without resorting to palm cards adorned with conversation starters”. The table they sit at is rustic, or artisan or something, and decorated to excess with native Australian plants, palm fronds and such. They all make cute eyes at each other and laugh at each others’ inanities. Annoying ad, that one – and a colossal marketing failure in that it made me, the apparent target demo, want to go out of my way to not drink their booze as a result. I’d rather have a case of the clap than a case of their wine.
So, imagine if you will, if the scene as described and depicted above, and transplanted to the French countryside and fictionalised. A French Wedding is the literal embodiment of middle class angst, of white privilege, of first world problems come to life. It’s really quite pretty, and Ms Tunnicliffe clearly knows her way around a pantry, but it’s an excruciating read at times – more of an endurance test, in that close to everyone in the story needs to be taken by the shoulders and shaken into a state of consciousness, out of nearly pathological self-absorption. Few to none of the characters would not escape a good slapping if they were in my presence. The bile-stirring mid-80s yuppie naval gazing of The Big Chill has been transplanted to a provincial French town, where Juliette, the foodie, prepares dishes for the assembled gathering of chums come together to celebrate the 40th birthday of their friend Max, who is – of course – a rock star (pet hate: when people never have bog-standard jobs in novels… they’re always musicians, gourmet chefs, actors, sculptors).
The food references flow like as much locally-sourced, organic fair trade Vichyssoise. And often is the case when you read this that it doesn’t add to the story, more underlines the author’s own expertise when it comes to food. Ms Tunnicliffe is a food blogger as well as an author, so when she makes reference to the crepe de ble noir, or tosses out a line like “She keeps things in the house she knows he likes – Andouille de Guemene, the famous smoked and dried pork sausage, her version of piccalilli relish with local cauliflower, as well as hard cheeses, preserved sardines and tins of handmade crackers and sables…”, it says less about building or furthering a narrative, and more about the fact that she can incorporate a hoity-toity shopping list into a paragraph. Does she know food? Yes, undoubtedly. Can she use it to build and propel a story? Not really.
Just like how Dan Brown opened the preposterous The Da Vinci Code with the word ‘Renowned’ and it went downhill from there (I swear, never a more infuriating author was there to tell me how stupid almost everyone is except him in the process of unfurling a pulpy art history potboiler), the reader of A French Wedding is perpetually being bludgeoned by ‘the firmest and brightest-eyed fish, the thickest bunches of sorrel’, to no real advantage. The food is infinitely more appealing than the characters, I’ll give it that.
Maggie Beer appeared on an informal sit-down group chat show Waleed Aly hosted on SBS back in 2010 called The Late Session, and said something along the lines of “Food and sex, what else do you need?”. So, same thing here. Except Maggie Beer seems like a perfectly agreeable and uncomplicated person to have a meal (or a shag, for that matter) with, and nobody in this book comes remotely close in either respect.