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My policy for my Book Bag posts is to only blog about books that I have enjoyed. Whilst I think that criticism can be constructive and useful in the right format, I don’t really want to bring in any more discouragement to the world than there already is.

Instead of deconstructing disappointing reads I would rather spend my time promoting books that I have really enjoyed. Which means that while I will have less books to write about at least they will be books that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

(Although in the rare case I reserve the right to change the policy when a book has maddened me with a ‘it was all a dream’ clause.)

All of that is a preamble to explain why I only have one book to share with you this time but it is one that delighted me so much that I couldn’t wait to share it with you.

Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood

Like Eloise growing up in the Plaza Hotel, Charlotte Silver grew up in her mother’s restaurant. Located in Harvard Square, Upstairs at the Pudding was a confection of pink linen tablecloths and twinkling chandeliers, a decadent backdrop for childhood. Over dinners of foie gras and Dover sole, always served with a Shirley Temple, Charlotte kept company with a rotating cast of eccentric staff members. After dinner, in her frilly party dress, she often caught a nap under the bar until closing time. Her one constant was her glamorous, indomitable mother, nicknamed “Patton in Pumps,” a wasp-waisted woman in cocktail dress and stilettos who shouldered the burden of raising a family and running a kitchen.

This book was recommended to me by a fictional character.  I was reading The Travelling Tea Shop by Belinda Jones last month and in the story, Laurie visits this quirky restaurant in Harvard and is given a book written by the restaurant’s owner’s daughter. Laurie reads the book for the rest of the afternoon and is smitten. She described the book so vividly right down to the way the little girls hand is slyly reaching for the cake on the cover that once I had finished the chapter I looked the book up to see if it was real.

It turned out that the book, restaurant and cake-grabbing little girl are all very much real, so I ordered the book to read it for myself!

I would recommend reading this together with The Travelling Tea Shop. They compliment each other well in tone and one helps set the scene for the other.

Charlotte AU Chocolat is less of a story and more of a guided tour behind the scenes of a delectable and strange lifestyle. There is a narrative here, and a poignant tale of family, but it almost plays second fiddle to beautiful prose and scene painting descriptions. The writing is vivid and engaging. Every time I sat down to read it I felt like I was settling down to story time where some heavenly voiced woman was going to lull me to a scene far away and long ago. Like a voice over at a beginning of a film that starts with a black screen before a scene comes to life in perfect synchronization with the narration.

An array of dazzling characters walk in and out of Charlotte’s life as the transient staff of restaurants come and go, each one with a story to tell, and you feel that each departure makes Charlotte feel that much more solitary, even as the next character walks through the door. These waiters, chefs and friends add colour, warmth, humour and pathos to Charlotte’s memories.

There is a contrast that threads itself throughout the chapters between the exquisite front-room dining experience that the customers see and the back room work and sometimes squalor of the kitchen. Every beautiful front-room is off set with a dingy back room. The family deliver fine dining at the restaurant but barely can rustle together scrambled eggs at home. The dining room is kept pristine but the kitchen staff are chasing mice out the back stairs. The Mother is polished to perfection on the outside but this is paid for by an inner hardness.

Oh and I can’t close without mentioning that the food descriptions make you hungry, thirsty and very jealous! I craved every meal that was mentioned and the moment I finished the book I was looking up restaurants closer to home that may be able to provide a similar dining experience. But alas I feel that Upstairs at the Pudding may have been one of a kind!

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