Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Cooking with Fernet Branca

James Hamilton-Paterson

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Cooking with Fernet Branca

Title: Cooking with Fernet Branca
Author: James Hamilton-Paterson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 281 pages
Availability: Cooking with Fernet Branca - US
Cooking with Fernet Branca - UK
Cooking with Fernet Branca - Canada
Cooking With Fernet Branca - India
Kochen mit Fernet-Branca - Deutschland
Cucinare col Fernet Branca - Italia

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : good fun, but fairly flimsy story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 19/6/2004 Michael Dibdin
The Independent . 26/7/2004 Christopher Hirst
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 10/1/2006 Georg Sütterlin
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/12/2005 Dawn Drzal
The New Yorker . 5/9/2005 .
San Francisco Chronicle D 25/9/2005 Dan Zigmond
The Spectator . 12/6/2004 Olivia Glazebrook
Sunday Telegraph A 6/6/2004 Ian Thomson
TLS . 2/7/2004 Sarah Bakewell
The Washington Post A 18/9/2005 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but considerable enthusiasm

  From the Reviews:
  • "(W)ickedly witty (.....) The plot is highly ingenious, completely wacky, and largely irrelevant. What is crucial to a piece like this is tone of voice, and with both Gerald and Marta we know that we're in safe hands from the beginning. While their names might suggest a duel by Edward Albee out of Beverley Nichols, the effect is of a classic Fred and Ginger duet: bitter-sweet and stylish, slightly edgy, expertly choreographed, moving forward at a perfect tempo, and never putting a foot wrong" - Michael Dibdin, The Guardian

  • "Even if it doesn't go anywhere in particular, the yarn is filigreed with a host of baroque detail (...) Hamilton-Paterson pulls off some fine comic set-pieces. (...) But it is the recipes that linger in the mind." - Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "An opera buffa with recipes, Cooking with Fernet Branca works because of the voice of its part-time narrator (.....) The novel has an elaborate plot that's completely beside the point (.....) The narrative is rampant with silly but strangely satisfying twists" - Dawn Drzal, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Hamilton-Paterson quickly seduces the reader with the perfectly captured acerbic tone and timing of Gerald and Marta’s badinage." - The New Yorker

  • "Clearly intended as a send-up of the literary travelogue popularized by Peter Mayle's modern classic A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes' more recent Under the Tuscan Sun, Cooking With Fernet Branca is only occasionally amusing, though patient readers will be rewarded by some interesting insights into expatriate life along the Mediterranean. (...) Much of the humor is very English, and some may be lost on American readers. (...) Now that the book has been published in America, one can only conclude that life must be awfully grim across the Atlantic. Or perhaps Cooking With Fernet Branca is an acquired taste." - Dan Zigmond, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A) deliciously nasty farce (...) The novel moves along at a fair clip and has an infectious comic energy. (...) A wonderfully rich alloy of sub-Wildean witticisms and nonsense, Cooking with Fernet Branca had me laughing out loud and uproariously." - Ian Thomson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "This is a playful book, full of fun and games. The plot always promises to escalate towards a climax of high farce which never quite arrives, but that hardly matters. There is so much pleasure to be had along the way from Hamilton-Paterson's delight in language and wicked way with unreliable narrators. Refreshingly, the humour of Cooking with Fernet Branca rarely derives from the Italian setting. (...) The recipes are more than entertaining: they linger in the mind like poems." - Sarah Bakewell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) silly, amusing and utterly inconsequential jeu d'esprit. There's nothing at all important to the book, aside from witty prose and a broad but affectionate lambasting of some recent cultural manias -- boy bands, UFOs, Tuscan villas, cooking, Do-It-Yourself projects, filmmaking, sports celebrities, the new Europe, gay tastefulness. It's really a summer treat at heart, and a good one to stash away for some bleak October evening." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Cooking with Fernet Branca is set in what both of the main characters hope is a quiet, secluded corner of Italy. The two neighbours, Gerald and Martha, both foreigners abroad (Gerald is British, Marta from an Eastern European country in considerable turmoil), each want their peace and quiet -- and were assured they'd get it by the property agent. Instead, they get each other, which is considerably more than either is equipped to deal with..
       The story is told in alternating sections by Marta and Gerald, a useful device that quickly shows just how unreliable these two narrators are (as each sees and describes things quite differently). Gerald is a frustrated but fairly successful ghostwriter of celebrity-autobiographies, while Marta is a trained musician who has been commissioned to write the score for a new film by a famous Italian director.
       Hamilton-Paterson seems to have found a premise (and title) he really liked, but then wasn't entirely sure what to do with it. A running gag is that Gerald and Marta each believe the other is addicted to the awful tipple that is Fernet Branca (at any hour of the day), while personally disavowing any great fondness for it. They get through quite a lot of this stuff along the way, but the gag runs a bit thin after a while. Similarly, Gerald is a ... creative cook, and his increasingly ridiculous offerings (beginning with what turn out to be the least offensive -- mussels in chocolate and otter in lobster sauce) are found throughout the book, but it almost feels like Hamilton-Paterson planned to make this the central part of the novel and then shied away from it at the last minute.
       What plot there is is similarly preposterous to Gerald's recipes -- grounded, just, in the plausible, but spun out fairly wildly. Gerald claims to have wanted a quiet retreat where he could work undisturbed, but finds instead:

An insane neighbour who looked like a bag lady, a daily stream of helicopters and sports cars: I might as well have gone to live in the short-term car park at Heathrow.
       Marta's family back home in Voynovia is wealthy but obviously involved in all sorts of less than legal doings, with the police eventually going after them. Both her brother and the director of the film she is working on do like to show up in helicopters -- with one late-night landing spooking Gerald's likely next subject, a bald young pop star who believes in UFOs. Marta's appropriation of the tunes Gerald sings to himself for her film-score, the use of her house to film some of the scenes, Gerald's unfortunate comments to a local about Marta's possible profession, and his attempts at DIY all make for amusing messes. As do any number of other (mis)adventures both get involved in.
       The fun of the novel is in the telling. Both narrators affect indifference to the other, but each gets under the skin of the other as well. Misunderstandings and misperceptions abound, and every encounter seems to lead to Fernet Branca excesses. Gerald's tone, in particular, is entertaining: he's a pompous, ridiculous man, proud of his ignorance (and who would rather have been born in 1865 than 1965), which makes him an oblivious fish out of water in almost any situation where he deals with other people. Marta is more conventional (though with a wild and demanding family lurking too near, in spirit if not (always) practise), but her accounts do make a good contrast to Gerald's (all Gerald all the time would likely have been overwhelming). Nevertheless, the humour often feels a bit forced and flat -- the jokes and situations looking like decent set-ups, but the follow-through a bit uncertain.
       The story careens wildly about, but the fun really is in the telling, and the telling is, for the most part, enjoyable enough -- and sometimes very funny indeed -- to make it a decent, fairly amusing read.

- Return to top of the page -


Cooking with Fernet Branca: Reviews: James Hamilton-Paterson: Other books by James Hamilton-Paterson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       British author James Hamilton-Paterson was born in 1941. He lives in Austria.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2005-2011 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links