Review: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe

9780143113232lChez Moi by Agnes Desarthe was written in the author’s native French and translated into English.  This meandering story is about Myriam, a 40 something woman with a haunted past who secures a bank loan based on a fictitious resume to open a restaurant.  Chez Moi (“my home”) is just that, both home and eatery, tucked into a small corner on a quiet Paris street without so much as a sign announcing it.  Myriam sleeps on a donated banquette in the dining room and bathes in a deep stainless steel sink in the kitchen.

 Myriam attempts to do everything by herself- shopping, cooking, cleaning, waiting tables, and bookkeeping.  She’s a talented cook but doesn’t have any business sense whatsoever.  Almost despite herself she begins to have regular customers but soon finds she cannot do it all alone.  Just when she needs him most, the best waiter in the world appears.  Ben has grown up in the neighborhood and knows everybody.  He’s savvy with money and knowledgeable about the internet and in the kitchen.  He helps Myriam’s business really take off, but more importantly plays a role in healing her fractured heart and helping her move on from her past.

 We learn about Myriam’s past as she ruminates over mistakes she has made in her life.  Her biggest heartache is her failing as a mother to her son, Hugo, who she never loved properly and to whom she has done something entirely repellant.  She doesn’t see how the situation can ever be repaired.   Fleeing her life some years ago, she has shut down emotionally.  Over the course of the book she starts rebuilding her relationships and begins to make new friends.  She learns to rely on herself and trust her abilities. I wanted Myriam to succeed and I rooted for her, although I thought she was a bit disturbed. 

There are a couple of interesting peripheral characters.  Vincent is a florist in the shop next door with a crush on Myriam and breath that could kill an elephant.  Little brother Charles is a successful businessman, and Ben the waiter is happily asexual. 

Food and friendship are at the heart of Chez Moi.  It’s a slim volume but a slow read.  The vivid description of food is a highlight and the writing is pleasant but there is virtually no action.  Some might find it boring, but I liked Myriam and I’m glad I got to know her.  I liked the book for it’s dreamlike quality, the interesting turn of phrase and use of language.  I’d recommend it to those who enjoy character driven stories and beautiful writing, but if you like a little more plot and a story that moves along quickly, this isn’t it. 

I heard about this book from author Jennie Shortridge, who recommended several books as alternative choices for book clubs in this post.  My own book club will discuss Chez Moi in January.  It will be interesting to see what everyone thinks, because it was definitely a different kind of read than what we’re used to.