Agnès Desarthe: Mangez-moi (Chez Moi)
Myriam is a forty-three year old woman. She is divorced and has not seen her son, Hugo, for six years. We learn, during the course of the novel, that she fell madly in love with Hugo when he was first born. Indeed, she was so enthusiastic about him that the nurse told her to calm down and her husband hit her. But her enthusiasm soon waned. Hugo became very independent and, when he brought home a friend, Octave, a silent boy who never took the initiative, she soon found herself preferring him. But all of that is now in the past. She left her husband and worked in a circus, as their cook. But the circus had to suddenly leave town and they couldn’t take her so, at the beginning of the novel, she has forged references and a certificate from a cooking school to get a bank loan and opened her own restaurant.
Myriam has no money so she lives in the restaurant. She also has no idea how to run a restaurant, as she willingly admits. She is a good cook but has no management or organisational skills. She plans on running the restaurant on her own, acting as cook, waitress, manager and everything else. She does no advertising, indeed she does not even have a sign outside the door saying that it is a restaurant, only a board with the day’s menu. She plans on an opening, inviting friends and family but only plans on having it after she has opened. Not surprisingly, the first day, no customers turn up. But, eventually she gets her first customers, two schoolgirls, Simone and Hannah, who are on the way to their philosophy class and who can only afford one dish between the two of them. As they are her first customers she gives them each a dish for the same price and then promises them a lifetime price of four euros per dish, so they become frequent customers. They ask her for her help in their philosophy classes but she struggles with such questions as whether there is ever any justification in telling a lie.
But gradually customers start coming, attracted by the good cooking and the pleasant ambience. Mrs. Cohen, for example, comes and asks if she can have her son’s bar-mitzvah in the restaurant, as a change from the normal venue. Myriam spends some money on getting kosher facilities but Mrs. Cohen has a row with her husband and the bar-mitzvah is cancelled. Myriam, however, takes it all in her stride, not least because she has discovered a large room at the back of the restaurant which can be used for functions. But working on her own is tiring and she cannot afford any help. However, Simone and Hannah suggest that she needs help and Ben arrives in a few days. Ben is something of a mystery. He seems to be well known in the neighbourhood, having worked in a local coffee bar. He is apparently studying politics. He seems to live on his own, with the suggestion that his parents are dead. Most importantly, he is very efficient and prepared to work for free. Myriam cannot allow him to work for free so she does pay him something. Ben continues to come up with innovative ideas, from creating a website to offering a take-away service.
We gradually learn what led to the break-up of Myriam’s marriage and her estrangement from her son. At the same time, we follow the course of her current love life, all done in a standard novel style. But what makes this novel is the character of Myriam and her telling of her story. It is told in a chatty, humorous style, confessional but not too much. She is, at times, sure of what she wants and clearly has an independent streak, while, at times, she is very unsure of her actions, whether it is opening the restaurant or in her relationships. Yet, she keeps cheerful and positive most of the time, even while wondering what she has got herself into. Above all, this book is a wonderful tale of a woman struggling but pulling through.
First published in French 2006 by Ecole des loisirs
First English translation 2008 by Portobello Books