Friday, 22 July 2016

Book Review: The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ogawa Ito review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

Maybe with the exception of those who consider preparing meals a rather annoying necessity that should be done with as quickly as possible, everybody will agree with me that cooking is an art. And like every true artist a cook needs not just talent and technique but also love and devotion to create something noteworthy. At the same time, cooking – like every activity that we enjoy – can be a consolation, if not an escape when life gets difficult or even overwhelms us. After her Indian boyfriend walked out on her and cleaned out their apartment, the protagonist of The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ogawa Ito (the second book from my list for Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge X) finds herself forced to return to her unloved mother in a remote mountain village. Without a penny and without voice she arrives, but nonetheless sets out to make the dream of her own little restaurant come true.

Ogawa Ito (小川糸) was born in Yamagata, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan, in 1973. After studies of Classical Japanese Literature at Seisen University in Tōkyo, she brought out her debut novel 密葬とカレー (google trans. Private Funeral and Curry) in 1999. In the following years, however, she focused on music as member and song writer of the Japanese band Fairlife. Only in 2007 she resumed her literary activities publishing a volume of illustrated poems titled ちょうちょ (Butterfly). Two months later her best-selling novel The Restaurant of Love Regained (食堂かたつむり: 2008) was released. Several other novels and short story collections followed – most notable among them あつあつを召し上がれ (2011; Eat While It’s Warm), リボン (2013; Ribbon) and にじいろガーデン (2014; Rainbow Garden) that have already been translated into Italian and French respectively, not into English though – along with food and travel books and the Japanese translations of picture books. Her latest published novel is ツバキ文具店 (2016; Stationery Shop Camellia). Ogawa Ito lives in Tōkyo, Japan, with her husband.

The story of The Restaurant of Love Regained begins with the first-person narrator Rinko returning home from work in a Turkish restaurant and finding an empty apartment. Her Indian boyfriend of the twenty-five-year-old left without warning and took everything with him except his key that lies in the middle of the deserted living room. Rinko realises that what she has on her is all that she still owns – along with the pot of rice bran pickles inherited from her beloved late grandmother who initiated her into the art of cooking. The situation overwhelms and literally mutes her. She scrapes together her last money to take the bus back to the mountain village where she grew up and where her mother still lives running a bar called Amour. Never having been on good terms with her mother, the idea of meeting her sickens Rinko and even when she gets off the bus she still hopes to be able to avoid it. She knows that her mother keeps her savings dug up in the garden, but all she finds is an old treasure box and then the squeaks of a pig betray her. Still unable to utter a single word, Rinko uses a notebook and a pen to explain to her mother what happened and to ask for help. Her mother agrees to take her in again under the condition that she pays for everything and that she looks after her pet pig Hermes. However, Rinko knows that in a small mountain village it isn’t easy to find a job and she comes up with the idea of starting her own one-table restaurant because cooking is the one thing that she loves and that she is good at. With money borrowed from her mother, hard work and the help of Kuma, a fatherly friend from high school, she opens The Snail and puts all her love into the dishes of regional organic food that she serves.

The best-selling novel The Restaurant of Love Regained is often referred to as chick lit and it’s certainly true that the plot is simple and characters aren’t particularly nuanced, but apart from this it offers an interesting insight into the Japanese or – more generally – Far-Eastern attitude towards nature including the cycle of life and death. The most striking scene with this regard surrounds the pig Hermes that is a pet not livestock, and yet, the poor beast doesn’t escape the butcher’s knife in the end. I agree with other reviewers that the graphic description of the killing and the following carving is disgusting, i.e. it is for me who am city-raised and not used to the sometimes cruel routine of farm life. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bloody details incited the one or other wavering to finally become a vegetarian although the author does everything in her power to soften the impression showing the deep respect that the narrator has for every life (animal, mushroom or plant) that she takes from nature so she can transform it into delicious food to nourish body, mind and soul. In my opinion, the scene actually doesn’t fit in because the general tone of the novel is quiet and gentle, if not a bit kitschy although the plot doesn’t even include a sentimental love story. Love plays a certain role in the book as suggests its English title, but it’s rather the love for cooking and also eroticism that shows above all in the language used is – more or less – reserved to food and its preparation or really transformation.

All in all, I consider The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ogawa Ito a pleasant and entertaining though not particularly impressive read. Maybe this is because I’ve never been much of a great eater or a gourmet and because I know next to nothing about Japanese cuisine, but it’s more likely that the novel just lacks the complexity and depth that l use to appreciate so much. I certainly found more of both in The Chef by Martin Suter (»»» read my review) that surrounds a gifted and passionate Tamil cook of love food in Switzerland. Nonetheless, Ogawa Ito's novel is a good book and well deserves my recommendation.

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This review is a contribution to
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  1. First of all, I like your alphabetical reading challenge. It is a great way to discover books you might not have read otherwise. I have to say that Japanese chick lit sounds intriguing to me. The opening scene when she finds her boyfriend gone and her apartment empty made me think of Murakami. Finally, when I am in the mood, I love cooking!

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Judy! The true challenge of reading the alphabet up and down as I do, isn't so much to find an author for every letter than to find it in the right order since I always alternate female-male and 2 classics-2 contemporary. So far I did quite well, I dare say.

      I've read only two novels by Murakami Haruki and one may have been a poor German translation because just a few years later a new one was released. However, I don't see much of a similarity apart from the cultural background and the Japanese scene. At any rate I like Japanese literature - would be strange if I didn't!

  2. I was gifted this book a few years ago, and although I haven't yet read it, I think I will make it the first for the JLC10 on my part. (You are way ahead of me with two read already!) I am intrigued on several levels, not because of chick lit or even the fact that it's Japanese as much as I love books about relationship. I, too, have had the devastating experience of coming home to an empty house. Thankfully, I had a career to rely on. At any rate, how interesting that she returns to her mother, that she sets up a one table restaurant. I love that! Thanks for another great review.

    p.s. Every time I hear of a pig being slaughtered I think of poor Wilber of Charlotte's Web. Talk about books making an indelible inprssion!

    1. Well, it fitted in well because I needed a contemporary novel written by a woman whose last name starts with "O". ;-). My next entry for the JLC 10 will only be in September - a male "I".

      That's interesting that you can relate to the story for having come home to an empty house yourself in the past. It must indeed be a devastating experience...

      Slaughtered pigs in books make me think of Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (although I never got beyond page 2 of the latter). I don't know Charlotte's Web - I never heard of it in this corner of the world until now.

  3. Now it's happening to me! I left a comment here this morning, and I do not see it now. Shall I repeat it, or do you have it in your queue? xo

    1. Oh, it's perfectly normal that your comment wasn't displayed right away! I don't allow them to because in the beginning I was swamped with spam comments (I no longer seem to be). And I only go online to check on my blog (including comments) once a day.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.