Published June 23, 2009
Reviewed December 29, 2009
With 2009 coming to a close, the book journalism world is awash in lists of the best titles of not only the last year but the last decade. The lists vary in terms of depth and focus, and the majority have selected some genuinely good titles, but nevertheless it feels like something’s missing. Words like “sublime” and “captivating,” “nuanced” and “illuminating” are all being tossed around regularly, but the one word that seems to be missing on the majority of these lists is “fun.”
Now I would never insist that literature try to avoid these heavier adjectives – being the aspiring alpha male of the literary criticism world that I am – but I do feel that too often literature is in the position of bringing people down. Sprawling character studies and painful memoirs have their place, but sometimes one wants to sit down with a book and feel good rather than insightful, pleasantly satisfied rather than enlightened. And this year, “Tomato Rhapsody” by Adam Schell was a book that provided that feeling in spades, an appetizing and ultimately joyful novel to brighten up a frequently dark field.
“Tomato Rhapsody” takes place in 16th century Tuscany, where where its titular fruit is limited to one farm where it is grown by a young Jewish farmer named Davido and his grandfather Nonno. When a papal decree of free trade and allows them to bring their produce to the village, it brings them into contact with the village’s unique inhabitants: an almost mystical priest, a restless duke, a conniving orchard owner, his beautiful stepdaughter Mari and a drunken puppeteer to name a few. The events that follow generate a great deal of wine and partying, luck that leads to love and recipes which will shape the country forever.
Stylistically, “Rhapsody” is very similar to a Shakespearean comedy, broken up into three parts and involving a series of interwoven plot threads such as star-crossed lovers, clever servants and comic foils. Lively discussion in taverns and festivals is prevalent, as are the occasional comedy of errors and nobles “slumming” with the common folk for a change of pace. Don’t expect iambic pentameter though, or any other kind of formality: Schell’s is a writing style that goes around in many occasions, prone to asides and comments to the reader on Italian drama tradition.
It’s in the dialogue that the Shakespearean influence is much clearer. The majority of the peasants speak in rimatori, an “aabbcc” rhyming style that lends a singsong cadence to the book’s conversations. It could easily be forced but Schell handles the writing more than competently and in many occasions often veers into bawdy limerick territory, discussing the ravages of syphilis or the arousal of a donkey. The speech is quirky without ever being grating, particularly if you have a strong tolerance for dirty jokes.
And for those who don’t have a taste for dirty jokes, the book’s culinary obsession will more than make up for it. Fittingly for a book that deals so heavily with food – gardens, orchards and markets are the main settings, and food analogies regularly describe the main characters – much of the inner dialogue and conversation is devoted to recipes. Be it the Good Padre’s fried eggplant with mint pesto, Mari’s technique for curing black olives or simply the contemplation of a tomato on the vine, “Rhapsody” quickly makes the mouth water. This is a book that demands you have a small carton of cherry tomatoes on hand to pop between your teeth as you turn pages, or be sitting in a restaurant that serves big plates of bruschetta.
And in its culinary focus, “Rhapsody” manages to once again prove the old adage that the quickest way to the heart is through the stomach. Emotions regularly run high in the book, be they the ebullient joy of the Drunken Saint festivals, debate over letting the Jewish farmers into the village or the growing romance between Davido and Mari. Much like the tomatoes and olives that drive the plot along, this is a story that is full of life and joy – chaotic to be sure, but undeniably alive.
While “Tomato Rhapsody” is certainly far from perfect – the ending scenes of each act go a bit too long, and only a couple members of the cast have any depth beyond stock characters – its flaws are masked under a seasoned sauce of energy and humor. It would be hard to see it fitting into the more prestigious “best of 2009” lists, but if you let it take you in you’ll feel better after finishing it than most of the year’s releases – and still have the energy to head down to the local Italian place for an early supper.