Saturday, August 23, 2014

Dinner at Antoine's by Frances Parkinson Keyes

There are some books that intrigue, resonate,  and stay with you beyond a few years. Such is the mystery novel, Dinner at Antoine's.  In my youth, my parents belonged to the Book of the Month Club and/or The Literary Guild. The books that were bought were given a home on bookshelves that were in my bedroom. As a voracious reader, I would "borrow" them from the shelves and read adult books at an early age. I am not certain when I read Dinner, but it must have been in my early very early double digit years. From that point, I knew that at some time I had to go to New Orleans and eat at Antoine's, the restaurant that has been serving customers since 1840. In August, that opportunity afforded itself. And before I went, I needed to revisit the book.

Antoine's provides the backdrop for the novel as it is there that Orson Foxworth hosts a party to introduce his niece, Ruth, to his friends. Keyes begins to set the stage for the novel introducing a host of characters at the dinner party and the hours after: Odilie St. Amant; her husband Léonce; her sister Caresse who is about to begin an affair with Léonce; her mother, Amélie; Sabin Duplessis. an old friend of Odilie with whom she was once in love and who was presumed lost in World War II; Dr. Perrault, who has been the family doctor and who delivers the news to Odilie that she is suffering from a terminal nervous disorder that sounds very much like Parkinson's disease; and the maid who has taken care of Odilie since she was an infant. At the height of the dinner, Odilie spills wine on a beautiful satin dress. She refuses to admit to having a shaking hand and does not leave the party until they all leave to go dancing. In less than 30 hours she will be found dead in her bedroom with a gun, given to her by Sabin, by her side. Was it murder or suicide? Police detective "Toes" Murphy asserts that he knows what happened, but does not divulge his theory until all the characters have had a chance to either prove or disprove alibis and motives. The solution will more than likely surprise all readers.

The novel is more than a murder mystery. It is a commentary on the mores of the time, the standing of women in Southern society, and the ways of life of the upper crust society. There is conveyed a sense of entitlement, but also of elegance. The description of Metairie Cemetery revealed what it was like to have a final resting place on "millionaire's row." Although Dinner at Antoine's is not considered one of Keyes' finest novels, it was of the ilk of an Agatha Christie murder tome - a large cast of characters and a detective who was smarter than any of the suspects. A satisfying read, even on the second go-round.

Antoine's was the elegant place to dine whether seated in the main dining room
or one of the private ones.
We had Sunday brunch there and despite the dress guidelines of no shorts, jacket preferred, diners were seated with shorts. It seems that in the aftermath of Katrina, restaurants are happy to have any customers. The ambiance was undermined a bit but the food was well prepared and I got to tick another item off my bucket list.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Everything Under the Sky by Matilde Asensi

One of the good aspects of book groups is that it forces the members to read outside of their comfort zones. This is especially true of me when reading of the Far East or Asian countries. I think it is because I don't have a real grasp of the history - there's just too much of it. Everything Under the Sky started as a novel that seemed it would be the memoir of a middle-aged woman dealing with the consequences of the death of her estranged husband. Was I ever wrong.

Told in the first person by Elvira DePoulain, we find a very seasick narrator making her way from Paris to China to settle the estate of her late husband, Remy´. Although they had lived apart for nearly 20 years, they were on good terms and as such she was responsible for his estate when he died suddenly in Shanghai. Accompanied by her niece Fernanda, she makes the journey only to find out upon arrival that he was very much in debt due to his opium habit and the predilection for many women and that his death was really a murder by the Green Gang who were looking for a decorative box that contained clues to a wealth of hidden treasure. Clued in by Lao Jiang, the antiquarian, and Paddy Tichborne, an Irish journalist, Elvira finds the box that poses more puzzles than provides wealth. 

Lao Jiang explains that the clues are to the the whereabouts of the tomb and wealth of the first emperor of China. In order to find the tomb before the Green Gang, it would be necessary to commence on the journey as quickly as possible. Knowing that she had no money to pay of her late husband's death, Elvira agrees to the strenuous and dangerous quest with Fernanda, Biao (an orphaned servant boy), the group sets off on the trek. What ensues is a series of adventures, dangers, and puzzles that seem so crafted for an Indian Jones or Laura Croft movie. Mysteries and conundrums present themselves at every stage of the journey and the solving of them is critical, not only to the discovery of the treasures, but also for the preservation of their lives. 

The adventure and mystery are only one side of the novel. Throughout the course of its telling, Asensi weaves the history and culture of China. The dropping of names of emperors and dynasties was enough to confuse the novice reader. I wish there had been a timeline or chart. What was more interesting, at least to me, was the elucidation of the concepts of Feng Shui and the Tao. Fascinating explanations of how the world is designed and how our environment should follow that were quite interesting. 

Everything Under the Sky was an ok read. The adventure and problem solving were most exciting, but I was weighed down by the Chinese history and pronunciations. The ending was predictable except for one or two twists and was tied up neatly. Not at the top of my favorites, but not a bad read, either.