A delightfully inventive ragout of fiction and historical fact, Roger Williams's first novel revolves around a pair of 20th-century icons. There is Norman Douglas, the erudite charmer, gourmet, scoffer, quaffer and high-spirited pederast, best known as the author of South Wind
. And there is Elizabeth David, who transformed Britain's humdrum eating habits in 1950 with the publication of Mediterranean Food
. A homage to both of these glorious hedonists, Lunch with Elizabeth David
comes in two parts, divided roughly along his-and-hers lines.
The first section details the unsentimental education--classical, culinary, sexual--of one Eric Wolton, a working-class Londoner celebrating his 13th birthday in Naples in 1911. This fictional figure is promptly "ravished by Norman Douglas the length and breadth of Calabria". Man and boy take their pleasures lightly indeed as they voyage across Italy's boot (which Douglas went on to celebrate in Old Calabria). And in later years, Eric, now resigned to a dull policeman's existence, recalls that summer as "the best time in his life." In 1951, however, he is abruptly summoned to the island of Capri, where Douglas and his fashionable entourage are joining Elizabeth David for a farewell lunch.
In the novel's second part, Williams veers more decisively in the direction of fiction, with Cherry Ingram's mother waiting upon Elizabeth David in a hotel in Ross-on-Wye in the late winter of 1946. Cut to the late 1980s, which find Cherry delivering a whitefish to a "Mrs David"--bibulous, overbearing, and suspicious of the finny creature's provenance. This chance encounter leads Cherry into her own past, which turns out to dovetail not only with David's but with that of Norman Douglas and his young paramour.
Williams's novel wonderfully evokes the glories of the Mediterranean, not to mention its multiple pleasures. It is perhaps less successful at splicing Eric and Cherry into the historical canvas: the drama of their lives inevitably pales beside Douglas's high-cholesterol existence, or David's. That said, the good parts are truly delicious and well worth sampling. --Ruthie Petrie
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.