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Picturing a World

What makes this book so happy (1): Food

In response to the appearance of Where the Light Falls on Prevention Magazine’s list of 55 Happy Books Proven To Boost Your Mood, I was invited to speak at my local public library on September 27th. It seemed a good idea to talk about the book in relation to the list—but that raised the question, just what is a happy book? I decided to tease out common threads among some of the titles and examine the extent to which I was conscious of each factor as I wrote. First topic: Food.

People love food. Many enjoy reading about it. It’s obviously central to Calvin Trillin’s Alice, Let’s Eat, Julia Child’s My Life in France, Ruth Reichl’s Delicious, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Those are non-fiction. It can also play a vivid role in fiction.

My editor teased me once about how often I depict my characters eating. I didn’t set out to make food a theme, but think about it: Eating is very much a part of daily life, so it can help in realistic world building and historical accuracy. As I asked myself how my characters moved through their day, it seemed natural to figure out how they fed themselves. The opportunities and rituals of meals, moreover, provide social settings for scenes that bring out aspects of the characters’ behavior, means, and attitudes toward each other. Finally, if you agree that a novelist’s job is to cause readers to have an experience, then appeals to the very basic senses of taste and smell and the visual allure of food can help them feel what the characters feel.

Vidal’s lithograph of a woman choosing a pastry while the shopkeeper looks on reminds me of Jeanette’s going into a patisserie when she and Effie land at Dieppe or Effie at Le Petit Honoré. It also makes me want one of those brioches in the window. What I really wish is that, when I was doing my research, I had known about flâneur Émile Goudreau’s witty look at late 19th C food habits in Paris, Paris qui Consomme. As far as I know, it has not been translated; but for the British Library’s Flickr gallery of Vidal’s illustrations, click here.

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