Carmen Posadas, Little Indiscretions (Random House, 2003)
The cheerful cover of this novel is an eye-catching yellow, with
little cupcakes and petit-fours tumbling around the head of a chef with an impossibly
large, curled mustache. It's drawn in a cartoony style, with the loopy swirl
of the title laid across the equally exaggerated chef's cap. The cover gives
the impression that this book is about a salacious chef in the middle of all
sorts of "indiscretions" involving cupcakes with no flour involved,
so to speak.
That's not an entirely true perception, but it's not too far off, either. This novel, translated from the original Spanish by Christopher Andrews, does involve a chef named Nestor with a taste for secrets but the only pastries he's playing with are real ones, dripping with sugar and chocolate glazes.
He does, however, know entirely too much about the games other people have been playing with each other, which puts him in a rather awkward situation when he is hired to cater a weekend party with several of those people gathered together. Not that he cares much. He's always believed that secrets are power as long as you don't use those secrets.
I'm getting ahead of myself. The novel doesn't start by talking about the chef and the little bits of power he has under his hat.
The novel starts with the ridiculous and completely believable death of Nestor, chef extra ordinaire, in a freezer whose door he has forgotten to prop open behind him. A moment of carelessness, ending a life of meticulous attention to detail or is it? Remember all those people upstairs that don't like how much Nestor knows about them or more accurately, what they think he knows about them.
It's only after Nestor is discovered that the flashbacks start, walking the reader back through the spooky chain of coincidences leading to this moment, giving out tantalizing moments of "oooh, it must have been this person, I just know it no, wait, it couldn't have been. Hmmm . . ."
That "hmmm" moment is one I've missed in many books lately, where the action is nothing if not predictable and the villain blatantly obvious. This one kept me guessing until the end, with its many hooks and side trips and twists. The characters are well drawn and detailed, the flaws of each person carefully presented and used to advance the story. For instance, Serafin Tous, one of the guests at the weekend party, realizes at one point, "It's a sad fact . . . that what actually happens in life doesn't matter half as much as what people say about it, and it's safe to assume that they rarely err on the side of generosity." He then promptly falls into his own version of that trap by assuming the worst of Nestor's intentions, which made me wonder if Tous was up to murder to protect his little secret.
Little Indiscretions is divided into four parts. Each section begins with an appropriate section title and quote. Part One, for example, has the title of "thirty degrees below zero" and the accompanying quote is from Macbeth: "Be lion-mettled, proud, and take no care/Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:/Macbeth shall never vanquished be until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him." It doesn't take much to see the parallel being drawn between Nestor, who is proud and at times arrogant, and the doomed Macbeth; especially when the next page starts with a description of the chef's death, ending with just a hint that it might not have been entirely Nestor's fault. The other parts have similarly well-matched titles and quotes.
There are interesting dashes of foreign words scattered like salt and pepper throughout the text, adding an exotic accent and the tension of "Do I look this up or try to figure it out from context?" Fortunately, most of the words are easy to figure out without resorting to a Spanish dictionary, and those that aren't obvious (what, exactly, is a cazzo?) are also not critical enough to interrupt the flow of the text. Only once was it confusing enough to stop me for a moment: first Chloe's aunt, Amalia Rossi, calls Chloe's father caro sposo, and then a few sentences later she herself is noted as having the nickname of Carosposo, which may or may not have any relation to the first term. As the term is rarely repeated and seems relatively unimportant, I decided not to bother looking it up, but it did stick in my mind as a confusing moment.
Most books that jump back and forth in time wind up being very confusing. Carmen Posadas pulls off the sequencing easily; I was absorbed into the segments so completely that it was easy to forget that I was waiting for a point to be made.
I enjoyed this book very much, and am looking forward to picking up more of Carmen Posadas' work.