In the opening sentence of her 1998 book, Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, Chilean author Isabel Allende declares: "I repent of my diets, the delicious dishes rejected out of vanity, as much as I lament the opportunities for making love that I let go by." In the height and rigor of physical self-awareness of the late 1990s in America, Allende's literary celebration of sex and food found ample response: her naughty recipe/pillow book ended up on the New York Times bestseller list.
Allende's seventh book follows the author's tradition of semi-autobiographical literature; it is a memoir of return to life, written after her 1997 novel Paula about the painful loss of her daughter. In the introduction, Allende states that her re-awakening to sensual pleasures marked her exit from the three-year period of sadness. The critics, calling Aphrodite an unusually "light" work for an author of customarily weightier literature, still praised it as a life-affirming sequel to the grief and anguish of Paula.
Aphrodite's anything-but-linear narrative is a mix of the author's romantic and culinary musings and recollections, her friends' stories, world recipes, excerpts from erotic texts, folktales, mythology, anthropology, poetry, travel writing, ancient and historical anecdotes, even gossip. In Allende's words, Aphrodite is "a mapless journey through the regions of sensual memory, in which the boundaries between love and appetite are so diffuse that at times they evaporate completely."
Even the author's California house was inspiring for the writing of her novel: as the author stated in an interview with Fred Kaplan for The Boston Globe, "it was the town's first brothel, then it was a church, then it was the first chocolate-chip cookie factory. So we live with all these smells—of the women and the chocolate—wafting in the air."
Aphrodite opens with Allende's reflection on her fifty years of life; she emphasizes the way in which memories are based on the sensual experiences that accompanied them. The author further presents her reasons and justifications for writing a book about aphrodisiacs, and offers a brief history of the use of sexual stimulants, consisting of food and many others (from magic rituals to erotic stories). In the "Mea Culpa of the Culpable" section, Allende introduces the people who created the project: the illustrator Robert Shekter, her mother and cook Panchita Llona, her agent Carmen Balcells, and the author herself.
This chapter defines an aphrodisiac as "any substance or activity that piques amorous desire." The author lists the categories of aphrodisiacs according to their function (the analogy of "the vulva-shaped oyster or phallic asparagus," or the suggestion of certain organs that, when eaten, can convey "strength"), and ruminates on the necessary role of imagination in erotica. Further, she examines the relationship between eating and sexual activity, finding that aphrodisiacs are a "bridge between gluttony and lust."
The Spice Is in Variety
Allende states that "the only truly infallible aphrodisiac is love" followed by the second—variety. However, both infidelity and polygamy are unnecessary if one introduces diversity into sexual practice with some study of erotic manuals or use of sex toys. Nevertheless, Allende warns that excessive and obsessive pursuit of variety can numb one's senses to the full experience of savoring the object of pleasure—be it a sexual partner or "a simple tomato."
The Good Table
Allende describes the culinary attitudes of her family, with a traditionally puritan grandfather, an indifferent grandmother, and a mother "who through one of those incomprehensible genetic accidents had in the midst of that Spartan tribe been born with a refined sensibility."
Cooking in the Nude
This chapter states that "everything cooked for a lover is sensual" and that the processes of cooking, eating, and lovemaking should be approached with pleasure and openness to fun. Allende writes that men proficient in the kitchen are sexually irresistible, and offers anecdotes from her own life and a friend's experience to support this statement.
The Spell of Aromas
The author states the interdependent connection between taste and smell, and proceeds to describe the erotic power of scent (as used by Cleopatra and the French monarchs, among others). After a brief history of perfume and a description of the process, Allende recalls her friend's failed attempt to arouse lovers with a purchased bottle of pheromones. The chapter ends with the significance of scent in the sexual experience, and a claim that the sensuous...
(The entire section is 1169 words.)