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Adam Schell – Tomato Rhapsody

October 7, 2009

118. Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit by Adam Schell (2009)

Length: 340 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 21 September 2009
Finished: 26 September 2009

Where did it come from? The local library booksale.
Why do I have it? The subtitle, in all honesty. Who wouldn’t want to read a book like that? Plus the tomato’s so entrenched in Italian food nowadays that it’s fascinating to think about a time when it was just being introduced.

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 12 May 2009.
Verdict? Keeper.

You say toMAYto,
I say fun fable about
love and toMAHtoes.

(That’s a lie. I don’t actually say toMAHtoes. Poetic license!)

Summary: Tomato Rhapsody is set in Italy in the mid 1500s, when the tomato was commonly known as the “love apple” and was distrusted and feared as being poisonous. In a small Tuscan village, Davido is a young Ebreo (Jewish) farmer who spends his days tending the tomatoes grown from seeds his grandfather stole during his voyages with Christopher Columbus. On the day that Davido and his grandfather first try to bring their fruits to market, he sees and instantly falls in love with Mari, a village girl whose passion for olives and olive oil matches Davido’s passion for tomatoes… but unfortunately Mari’s family olive groves – and Mari’s future – are under the control of her cruel and scheming stepfather. Their love – like the tomatoes – are forbidden by the church, and would never be accepted by the local villagers. But some things are too sweet to be denied – whether it’s the passion of young love or the flavor of a summer-ripe tomato.

Review: There have been a number of books that have come out in the past year or so that I would call “foodie fiction” – The School of Essential Ingredients and The Book of Unholy Mischief are two from my own reading that come to mind. It’s a subgenre I enjoy, but I think there’s been enough of an influx that relative newcomer Tomato Rhapsody has gotten somewhat lost in the shuffle… and that’s a shame. It’s historical fiction, yes, and it’s got a very strong foodie element, but it’s less of a standard historical fiction and more of a cross between a fable and an Italian commedia dell’arte. In fact, I think it bears the strongest resemblance to Joanne Harris’s Chocolat – a similar theme of a bunch of resistant villagers being introduced to a new and suspicious food, a similar sense of joy at the absurdity and wonder of life and the power of food, and a similar tone of not-quite magical realism, of all of the personalities and events and reactions and emotions being more vivid and more immediate than is strictly realistic.

The prose perfectly matches the story it’s telling: earthy and bawdy and joyous and full of the flavors of the Tuscan countryside. It manages to be simultaneously operatic in prose and Shakespearean (and rhyming!) in dialogue, while never taking itself entirely seriously, and the result is lyrical and lovely and so charmed by its own cleverness that I couldn’t help but smile almost constantly as I was reading – at the words as well as the story.

There were a few things that bothered me. The story takes a while to get going (the young lovers don’t even see each other for the first time until almost page 100), so it took me a while to really get interested. Similarly, because it’s told more as a fable than as a straight-up story, we’re kept at somewhat of a distance from our hero and heroine, and it’s hard to become particularly emotionally involved with their plight (especially since the traditional form dictates a happy ending.) Finally, while the rhyming dialogue did definitely add a unique flavor to the book, by the end it started to get a little tiring. Still, once I was able to get settled into the rhythm and style of the story, I enjoyed it immensely, as the smile plastered across my face as I was reading probably could attest. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you like historical fiction and/or foodie fiction (and are not thoroughly put off by bawdy humor), give Tomato Rhapsody a shot. Its style won’t be to everyone’s taste, but those for whom it works will find it a funny, joyful, and unique read.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Adam Schell’s website – including recipes from the book, and videos of the author making them!

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Nonno looked east across the roll of his farm at that particular moment in a late-summer dawn when the soon-to-be-risen sun threw an expectant hue of orange and purple across the horizon.

Cover Thoughts: I love it. I like the crackle-effect over the painting of the Tuscan countryside, I think the little cherubs around the title give the hint that this book doesn’t take itself too seriously, and don’t you just want to take that tomato and eat it?

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 4: “The mournful cry erupted from the donkey’s mouth and filled Nonno’s ears as profoundly as the sounding of a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.” – a ram’s horn blown as a wind instrument, sounded in Biblical times chiefly to communicate signals in battle and announce certain religious occasions.
    .
  • p. 12: “Self-educated, Menzogna taught himself Latin, French, Greek and Spanish and became a prolific writer of plays and essay. He is universally recognized as the creator of tiramaturgy.” – Google can’t find a single instance of this word on the web. Any thoughts?
    UPDATE: The author himself just sent me an e-mail to let me know that this was actually supposed to be dramaturgy – the art of the theater, especially the writing of plays.
    .
  • p. 23: “His nostrils, each the circumference of a colossal green olive from Sicily, and his head, the girth and glabrous sheen of a Mantuan pumpkin in late November.” – having a surface devoid of hair or pubescence.
    .
  • p. 36: “Rabbi Lumaca and a small entourage from the town of Pitigliano were visiting to discuss wedding plans and they brought with them a fine pair of bronzini, just pulled from the waters that very morning and packed in salt.” – the European seabass, a primarily ocean-going fish that sometimes enters brackish and fresh water.
    .
  • p. 162: ““For honest is he who knows he’s a giglet, than to think he’s a lion, when he’s a piglet.”” – a giddy, playful girl.
    .
  • p. 178: ““Who can blame him,” said the younger guard, “with a sticchio for a wife and frocio for a son?”” – derogatory Italian slang for a woman’s genitalia; derogatory Italian slang for a homosexual.
    .
  • p. 233: “Next, the Good Padre lifted the aspergillum from the pillow, spoke a few words in Latin, and then sprinkled the first Cavaliere and his donkey with holy water.” – a brush or instrument for sprinkling holy water.
    .

**All quotes are from an advance review copy and may not reflect the final published text.**

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 7:45 am

    Wow! What a thorough review this is! And this book sounds really interesting. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. October 7, 2009 7:53 am

    I love tomatoes and some historical fiction. You bought the book for the subtitle – I would buy it for the cover! This sounds like my kind of book! Thanks for the review.

    • October 9, 2009 9:05 am

      bermudaonion – Isn’t the cover gorgeous? It makes me sad that I get no more summer garden tomatoes until next year.

  3. October 7, 2009 8:22 am

    Tiramaturgy- the art of writing about the creating and preparing of the dessert Tiramisu. (?!)

    I love the cover, I love your poem about tomatoes/toMAHtoes, I really enjoyed this review!

    • October 9, 2009 9:05 am

      Care – I think you’re probably right. Mmmm, tiramisu….

  4. October 7, 2009 10:25 am

    This book looks enjoyable! I will have to add it to the wish list

    • October 9, 2009 9:06 am

      Kailana – I hope you get a chance to pick it up… it’s a cute book, and not very widely-known, apparently.

  5. October 7, 2009 2:59 pm

    This sounds like a book I’d have to be in a certain kind of mood for. Not sure what kind of mood that would be, though. :-D

    • October 9, 2009 9:07 am

      softdrink – Perhaps the mood of immediately after (or immediately before?) a really good Italian meal?

  6. October 8, 2009 1:14 pm

    I got this book from the abandoned book pile where I worked this summer but haven’t pulled it off the shelf to the “to read” pile because I wasn’t sure about it. Your review is actually the first one I’ve read of it, which is interesting. I didn’t know the dialogue rhymed; that’ll be interesting!

    • October 9, 2009 9:12 am

      Kim – I was surprised that there weren’t more (any) reviews out there, too! Not all of the dialogue rhymes – just that of the peasants/villagers, and not always. Schell has it as being a kind of folk-speech common to Italy at the time, and I’m still not clear as to whether it’s a real thing, or whether he made it up. (I think the latter, but it’s well-done enough to make me wonder.)

  7. October 10, 2009 1:49 pm

    Lol, cute! Foodie books are always of the good in my book. Never heard of this so you may be right about it getting lost.

    • October 11, 2009 10:16 pm

      Ladytink – I really wonder what happened to the marketing on this one. I remember seeing it in Shelf Awareness briefly, but then it seemed to just completely fall off the radar.

  8. October 12, 2009 1:51 pm

    Okay, I just cracked and requested this from the library. Now I can’t place ANY more holds until my husband picks up the ones that have already come in for me today.

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