Pros: Capella can write very lovely prose that is very descriptive.
Cons: Unfortunately pretty prose doesn't make always for a good story.
After reading Anthony Capella's previous novel, The Wedding Officer, I was eager to read more of his works. I had found his writing to be entertaining and life affirming, two elements that had made reading his works a delight. So when I found a copy of The Various Flavors of Coffee in the ship's library whilst on my holiday, I eagerly dived into the story.
Robert Wallis is a young man of good family who has been sent down from Oxford, and has entered into the delights of late Victorian London with abandon. He sees himself as a poet, albeit a still unpublished one, and acts accordingly -- he dresses in flamboyant style, tries to recreate himself as another Oscar Wilde, and indulges in the delights of the flesh and of the grape with equal delight. In short, he is wasting his youth and his mind. Now he's on the edge of poverty, and needs to find some sort of income when he encounters Samuel Pinker, a coffee merchant, in his usual hangout of the Cafe Royale.
Samuel Pinker invites Wallis for a meeting -- which turns out not at all what Wallis expects. Pinker wants Wallis to write for his company, to establish a terminology that will standardize how coffee is rated and tasted. This will give Pinker the ability to communicate with his buyers around the world, and he hopes, a lead on the rather cutthroat world of coffee buying and selling. Wallis is rather skeptical of the scheme at first, but when he meets the attractive young woman in Pinker's office -- Emily -- he decides to take it on, with a few conditions of his own.
But Pinker is far ahead of him in the game -- he's already arranged to hire Wallis, and it's a cold choice for the aspiring poet -- work for Pinker or starve to death. And it turns out that the attractive young lady is none other than Pinker's eldest, independent, willful daughter. As Emily teaches Willis the intricate art of cupping (tasting) coffee, and the intricacies of where and how coffee is grown and created, Wallis finds himself courting her. It's an awkward courtship to say the least as we are told the story from only Wallis' point of view, and most of the time, he's acting and thinking like a callow idiot.
When he finally decides to ask Pinker for his daughter's hand, we can't help but cringe for him as we clearly see that Pinker hasn't any intention of letting him wed his daughter. Instead, he will only consider the proposal when Wallis goes with a trusted associate, a dour (aren't they all?) Scotsman named Hector to Africa to find the source of the mysterious mocca bean and set up a steady supply for it to be imported. Wallis agrees, finding himself once again cleverly maneuvered into a corner by Pinker.
Once they reach Africa, Wallis finds his world turned upside down when he meets Fikre, a beautiful woman with ebony skin and pale grey eyes who views him with both invitation and distain. She is a slave, and Wallis is smitten by her, and all thoughts of Emily are driven from his mind. He discovers Fikre's story, and he becomes determined to possess her no matter the risk or the cost to his future or his life...
What can I say? This was a novel that I was happily anticipating reading, and once I got into it, I found myself rather disappointed. The character of Wallis is one that I just could not get into from the start, finding him an ambitionless poseur, without much will power or determination. He gets into debt, visits prostitutes, and only when he is exiled to Africa do we get any sense of the man that he could be if he just applied himself a little. Unfortunately, that was simply too far in and too little to keep me caring about his fate.
The themes, I must admit, are interesting -- the role of women in a subservient society, whether it is Victorian England or Africa, the rise of the suffragette movement and conservative politics, or the machinations of the marketplace all have vivid roles in this story. Unfortunately, the ever shifting point of view from Wallis' first-person perspective to Pinker and Emily's conversations in present tense third person, also made the story uneven in spots, as I had to mental shift gears to the differing tenses. I can admit that from it was good from a technical viewpoint, but also awkward to get through as a reader.
While Capella's prose can be very evocative and expressive, this time, I simply didn't care. It took me more than a week to plow through this rather dreary novel, and even though I will read nearly anything with a culinary bent, this story just lacked something. I don't know if it was the unsatisfactory characters, all of which have some flaws to them, or the drifty pace of the story, or that it was just a dud. While I might try to give Capella another chance with others of his novels, this is one that I cannot honestly recommend. It reminded me all too vividly of David Liss's novel, The Coffee Trader, which has a similar theme, but a much more interesting story and plot to it.
Three stars overall. Not recommended.
Other novels by Anthony Capella:
The Wedding Officer
The Food of Love
The Various Flavors of Coffee
2008; Bantam Books