The Epicure’s Lament

Hugo Whittier craves solitude. He is content to be left alone to read, smoke, and prepare gourmet meals. A failed writer, Hugo is especially fond of reading food writer M. F. K. Fisher, whose husband died of the rare smoking-related Buerger’s disease. Hugo also has this ailment but refuses to stop smoking because it is his greatest pleasure.

Hugo’s peace is interrupted when his older brother, Dennis, moves in after leaving his wife. After learning that Dennis may be in love with Stephanie, his wife’s best friend, Hugo begins an affair with Stephanie. The situation grows more complicated when Hugo’s estranged wife, Sonia, suddenly returns after a ten-year absence with their daughter, Bellatrix, whose paternity Hugo has always denied.

This richly comic, well-observed novel is Kate Christensen’s third, following In the Drink (1999) and Jeremy Thrane (2001), both of which have been praised for their finely drawn protagonists. Hugo is the triumphant center of The Epicure’s Lament. Both infuriating and loveable, Hugo is in the tradition of such larger-than-life comic heroes as Gulley Jimson in Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944) and Sebastian Dangerfield in J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1955).

Especially delightful are Hugo’s initially strained encounters with precocious eleven-year-old Bellatrix, one of the best child characters in recent fiction. Even though she is not his biological issue (or perhaps because she is not), Hugo grows to love his “daughter.” This shift in his cantankerous nature is not without the conventional side effect known as character growth. Christensen would have been better off leaving Hugo to his self-destructive fate.