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Book Review: The Debt To Pleasure

the debt to pleasure

The Debt To Pleasure by John Lanchester

John Lanchester’s book The Debt To Pleasure begins, in hindsight, with one of the truest statements I have ever read:

This is not an ordinary cookbook.

Amen to that. It’s not an ordinary cookbook, an ordinary memoir, or an ordinary travelogue, but it does live in each of those categories. It’s an ingenious bit of craftsmanship and slyness, and I’d recommend that you read it a bit more slowly than I did.


This book was recommended to me by a commenter in the Best Villains in literature post. He apologized immediately for the inability to describe the book’s narrator without giving some hints to the book’s twists.

I’ll offer the same apology and do my best not to spoil anything unnecessary.

Tarquin Winot–it is highly unlikely that this is his real name, as the term “unreliable narrator” could have been invented for him–discourses on various dishes, and the seasons in which they would best be served.

My first impressions:

  • He really knows a lot about food
  • He is funny
  • He is erudite
  • He knows his European history
  • Art is important to him
  • There’s some background issue with his brother
  • He is arrogant

But amidst the lectures on the history of the peach, the “erotics of dislike,” the omelet, the aperitif, the mushroom, etc, the humor is what kept me most engaged. I laughed out loud a couple of times, and suspect I would have done so more often if I had given the book a closer reading.

As he talks about the food, he can’t help but mention details about himself, his own history, his own genius…and occasionally he lets facts slip in that hint at something weird going on. He might, for instance, hint that he is good at following people, or admit that he is wearing a false mustache today while dictating this section of the memoir.

These cracks were infrequent and sly, and when I realized what was going on, I started paying more attention. I just couldn’t pore over the lengthy tangents on spices and champagnes. My loss, perhaps.

And more than that, I really don’t want to say. It’s a shortish book at 250ish pages, and well worth the read. I suspect that I would have enjoyed it even more if my culinary abilities reached beyond my ability to make a remedial sandwich.

If you enjoyed this post, I think you’d enjoy the RSS feed and the book club.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mich May 15, 2011, 7:59 pm

    I read this book about thirteen years ago and still remember how I felt when I finished it. You’re right – it is hard to describe without giving away too much. Recommendation seconded.

  • Sonia Simone May 15, 2011, 8:20 pm

    This is also a great one to listen from Recorded Books. Their voice actor for this one is fantastic.

  • David Cain May 24, 2011, 3:15 pm

    My favorite book. His particular brand of arrogance is irresistible to me. I should read it again. I love the way his “peculiar moral outlook” emerges gradually.

    Mr Phillips is another by Lanchester that’s worth reading. Takes place over the course of a single workday in which the dull, fearful accountant Mr Phillips gets fired immediately and then takes his time walking home through the city so as not to alarm his wife by returning early.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 24, 2011, 9:24 pm

      Come off it, David. Your favorite book is “Give it to you: The unauthorized Jordan Knight biography.”