From the title, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel when I asked for a review copy. Now, having read it, I have to say I’m impressed beyond my expectations.
Primarily, Hungry Woman in Paris is the story of a young woman trying to find herself in a foreign country. Yet it is so much more than that. Beyond a delicious facade of Parisian gourmet cuisine and love escapades, the novel examines important issues like prejudice against minorities and gender roles.
Escaping a broken engagement and the death of her cousin and best friend, twenty-nine year old Canela flies to Paris and decides to attend Le Croq Rouge, a presumably famous cooking school popular among foreigners. There, the former journalist immerses herself in the sensual world of smell, touch and taste in order to keep away from suicidal thoughts. She works very hard and not only struggles with learning to cook, but also with learning French and dealing with French Officials, a situation that brings her back in time when she was an undocumented Mexican in the US. Now that she’s in France, she has to go through the same prejudice all over again.
The cooking course lasts nine months and is divided in three parts: Basic, Intermediate and Superior. During this time, Canela becomes involved in various relationships, but although she initially is attached emotionally to one man, hers is primarily a sexual journey of self discovery in a man-dominated world where ‘free’ women are considered whores. Yet, Canela stays true to herself and her willingness to become free of gender restrictions. A feminist and activist at heart, she also becomes involved in various difficult situations which bring forth her passion for what she believes is right. At the same time, she is tormented by the spirit–or so it seems–of her dead cousin and by intense feelings of guilt. All through the novel, her inner loneliness and desperation permeates the story. Eventually, she must choose between staying true to herself and be alone or become what society expects of her and find what is socially accepted as ‘happiness’.
Hungry Woman in Paris is a compelling, engrossing read. Told in the first person from the point of view of Canela, the story sparkles with genuinity and our protagonist’s strong voice. Canela comes across as a passionate and forceful yet sad, very vulnerable woman trying to find her true identity in a world that denies her just that. The prose flows beautifully, shining here and there with Canela’s witty remarks and her honest view of life’s struggles. The secondary characters are also compelling but the novel is driven by Canela and her narrative voice. The pace moves fairly quickly and the food descriptions are a fun, delicious part of the novel that work on two levels–indeed, the word ‘hungry’ is meant both for food and lust. Lopez interlaces the two elements with clarity and deftness, pulling the reader into a world of drunken sensuality. Highly recommended.