Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen by Kate Taylor
Published: 2003 by Anchor Canada
My favorite book of 2012. Yes, it's early to make that call, but I just loved loved loved this book.
Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is a novel with three related narratives: that of Madame Proust of the title - Jeanne, mother of Marcel; of Marie Prevost, translator of Madame Proust's (fictionalized) diaries; and Sarah Bensimon, a Jewish girl who escaped Nazi-occupied Paris to a safe haven in Toronto. Aside from Jeanne and Marie's obvious connection, it is difficult at first to see how the women's stories relate to one another, but they do tie together not only with the stories, but with the themes of memory, the French language (and its use with and against English -- especially in Montreal where part of Marie's story takes place), Jewish identity, and maternal love and expectations.
Marie in fact refers to Marcel Proust as "a comrade in pursuit of memory" and begins her translation of Madame Proust's diaries as a result of her affection for In Search of Lost Time. In the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, her work on the diaries is intertwined with memories of her childhood in Paris, her first encounters with Jewish people, and of memories of Max Segal, a man who could not return the love she felt for him. Her thoughts on discovering a fellow student in her Parisian school I found especially interesting and vivid:
... in these Parisian days, I know few Jews personally, and David's blond hair and happy manner are utterly unlike the other Jews I do know, the ones in the pictures they show us at school. They are emaciated, living skeletons in striped pyjamas, indistinguishable one from the other.
and on learning about those "skeletons" in school:
These suffering skeletons in their striped pyjamas seem to me as noble and as distant as the bleeding Christ and weeping Virgin whose image hangs on the wall of the small classroom where we dully receive instruction on our catechism every Wednesday afternoon.
Such a lovely (yet at the same time haunting) description of Holocaust victims that I never have seen.
Sarah Bensimon's story is not as directly tied to the other two, but it is no less interesting. Living in Toronto with a Jewish foster family, she is brought up as "normally" as possible given her circumstances, though as a young woman and then as a wife and mother she seems to become a timid and insecure person who is not at all sure of her place in the world. To comply with her more observant husband's religious traditions, but to keep the culinary traditions of her homeland, she turns her attention to cooking and finding a way to combine the two. It is hard to say if this helps her at all or if it is only to please the others in her life, but to me it seems that this is the one of the few things she truly enjoys.
And of course, being set partially in Canada, winter plays a part in the story and I just loved some of the descriptions of the season, especially this declaration Max makes to Marie as they leave a party in the dark of night during a snowfall:
"Snow, it's like falling in love. Makes you see the whole world differently."
I loved this sentence especially since as I was reading it six inches of snow was falling on us in Chicagoland and as I looked out the window I could see everything look prettier and calmer.
Kate Taylor touches on heavy topics in this novel, but it is by no means a heavy read. Each narrative was well-told and woven into one another seamlessly; and as evidenced by the few quotes I've cited above, her use of words to paint a picture is perfect.
I highly highly recommend this novel, but it is a bit tricky to find. I picked it up on a visit to Toronto last week, and the only online source of it that I could find is Canada's bookstore chain Indigo. But I really really want you to read this book, so for one lucky commenter (internationally!) I would like to order the book on their behalf. Leave an e-mail address with your comment and on Sunday, January 29 I will randomly select a winner.