What do you want in life? Power? Money? Being really, really, really good looking like Derek Zoolander? Or maybe just a roof over your head?
There are plenty of great stories about orphans and farm boys and farm girls and dragons who grow up to save the world. We call these adventures epic because of their scope. But there are also great stories on a smaller scale. The Chef’s Apprentice aims to be one of these: Luciano is a Venetian street urchin lucky enough to be plucked from the streets and given a job in Chef Ferrero’s kitchens. Ferrero is the doge’s chef. He’s also a member of a secret society of master chefs that safeguards forbidden knowledge, waiting for a time when humanity is more enlightened and accepting of different ideas. Luciano really just wants a roof over his head. But thanks to the chef, he starts to learn how to think for himself, how to question authority, and ultimately how to be a better, stronger person.
This book starts off very strongly, but there are also signs of trouble from the beginning. Elle Newmark makes an endearing character in Luciano. He’s young and naïve despite his time on the streets. He’s easily manipulated, but he’s sympathetic even when making stupid mistakes. There’s nothing surprising about this book, from Marco’s actions to the way the whole Francesca romance ends. But Newmark at least makes the experience an enjoyable one.
So for the first hundred pages or so, I was having a good time. I liked the descriptions of the food and the activities in the kitchen. I liked Luciano’s reflections of what he was learning and why he was doing things. I wasn’t so enamoured with Newmark’s tendency to jump around in time—infodumping, for example, a whole bunch of information about the chef’s past, imparted to us by the older Luciano narrating this book.
There’s an awkwardness, then, to the writing, that the book never manages to escape. It’s not just the pacing or the narrative style. The characters tend to be two-dimensional. As I made it past the half-way point, the plot concerning “the book” started to envelop Luciano’s story of personal growth. I just wasn’t as interested in a little conspiracy thriller within my historical fiction, despite the delightful promise in the opening scene in which Luciano describes the doge’s murder of a peasant.
I feel like Newmark constantly comes close to making interesting observations about sixteenth-century Europe and then veers off at the last moment. In her portrayal of Luciano, Marco, and Domingo she reminds us that we exist in a very privileged time in human society. High rates of literacy and easy-to-print books mean that most people have levels of knowledge far beyond what the average European could dream of in Luciano’s time. The sheer vista of knowledge available to me with the Internet at my fingertips is staggering when you juxtapose it with the narrow experience Luciano might have available to him before his adventures with the chef.
Placed in context like this, the necessity for the chef’s philosophical teachings become more clear. Normally I eat this type of stuff up in a novel; I loves me my didactic fiction. And The Chef’s Apprentice isn’t bad in this respect. Nevertheless, Newmark just doesn’t quite excite me in the way similar philosophical novels have. There just isn’t much detail here. Newmark acknowledges that she plays a little fast-and-loose with the historical record (real pope, fake doges, etc.), and that’s fine. But when it comes to the philosophy behind it all, the message seems to boil down to, “Christianity is bunk; think for yourself.” And while I don’t disagree, there are more elegant ways to make that argument.
The Chef’s Apprentice did not live up to my expectations. But hey, those expectations didn’t actually materialize until I started reading—so there’s that. The book is really good at first, and the fact it doesn’t pay off as much as I had hoped is a disappointment but not a deal-breaker per se. I could be persuaded to read another Newmark novel at some point, but this novel in particular isn’t going to leave much of a mark.