I remember my first taste of coffee very well. I was five years old and reaching for another cup (probably filled with something with an unnatural color and amount of sugar) and got my moms coffee filled mug by mistake. I also remember spitting the coffee out. But in this age where a Starbuck's is literally found on every street corner it simply wasn't possible that this be my last encounter with the drink.
Even before I liked to drink it I loved the smell of coffee. On shopping trips I would routinely (along with lying down in the beer cooler) sneak into the coffee aisle and just stand there and smell. It was that, the incredible smell of coffee that drew me to drink it. And because I love coffee, and history, why wouldn't I read a historical novel about coffee?
"The Various Flavors of Coffee" is a wonderful, yet very odd book. I say odd because it wasn't until the very last pages of the book that I realized that there was a plot. Normally that would be an indication of a terrible novel (because what story doesn't have a plot? Some kind of crisis that our characters are straining towards?) but in this case the amount of description and incredible detail between the beginning and the end made up for it.
As it turned out that the plot was the oldest story in the world, taking place at the end of the 19th century. Boy (Robert Wallis) meets girl (Emily Pinker) and this is the story of their lives from when they first met until they stopped meeting. Individually and together the novel tells how the two characters evolved and faced the challenges of their lives.
Of course there's a back story. Emily's father sells coffee and after a chance meeting with Robert (who fancies himself a poet of the starving artist variety) hires him to describe the way different coffee's taste-all of the subtle little nuances and aromas and flavors that come out of a single cup of pure coffee (think wine tasting.) Emily works with Robert and they are both opened up to a new world of detail and sensation.
Naturally one thing leads to another and somehow Robert finds himself in a strange situation-he's engaged to Emily and forced to go to Africa to set up a coffee plantation for his future father in law. But Robert is a poet, not a planter, a lover, not a farmer and the venture seems doomed from the start. Meanwhile Emily is discovering the suffragette movement and taking on the British government by demanding votes for women.
There is a lot that goes on in this book: exotic locals and characters, laugh out loud funny moments, stock market maneuverings, horrific but true to history description of how the suffragettes were treated in England, a kind of spiritualism and of course, everything you never knew you didn't know about coffee.
The novel is told by Robert in a kind of memoir that shifts from first person (stuff about him) to third person (stuff about everyone else) so his point of view is more prevalent, and his story is more descriptive then Emily's but overall this a novel of growth and exploration and in the end the narrative style perfectly suits the book.
It is a strange novel. But the story of Robert and Emily's lives (from when they met to when they stopped meeting) is amazing. It's not just any book that can move you, make you laugh out loud, cry, feel outrage...a whole range of emotions (not to mention inspiring an intense desire for some coffee!) I don't say this often but I think it would make a wonderful movie.
I highly recommend this book and I fully intend to track down and read this author's other works.
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