Shelf Awareness for Readers Review: The Telling Room, by Michael Paterniti

My review for Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room is posted here.

It’s always good to look at other reactions:  The New York Times review, while positive, acknowleged its overwrough quality, comparing it to those little handwritten descriptions pinned to cheeses in upmarket shops, calling it  “is essentially a book-length version of one of those little signs. This is mostly a good thing, though your level of appreciation may vary in accordance with your tolerance of floridly descriptive curd-driven prose.”  It goes on to praise the infectious enthusiasm of the writing, but adds a pointed caveat that I agree with, though I also think many general readers will just skip the footnotes and be carried along by Paterniti’s voice:

“Paterniti is too besotted with his material and with Ambrosio, to the point of becoming overwhelmed by both. He cops to being the kind of writer “given to tilting the most quotidian events into a Viking epic,” and, indeed, he puffs up what probably would have been a perfectly formed little book into a flabby, overly digressive 300-plus-pager.

I think that’s just about right, and it would have improved my review had I figured out a way to make that point in 250 words (an irony, of course, given the book under discussion!)  But the NYT goes on to make a more insightful point:

Like many a writer following in the footsteps of David Foster Wallace, ­Paterniti is keen on shaggily discursive footnotes — about Spanish history, random whimsies, the way Ambrosio addresses him, whatever. These footnotes, in the early going, seem fun, like added value, but as they persist, growing on the page from about the thickness of a Three Musketeers bar to that of a Carnegie Deli sandwich, they become draggy, oppressive. You want to nudge the author in the ribs, clear your throat and interject, “Anyway, Mike!” — get the guy out of his own way.”

Indeed.

The Chicago Tribune review was more glowing, praising the book’s quirky and rustic charm and pointing out that the narrative is really not about chasing down the cheese:  “Because the stuff about the cheese? About the pleasures of food and family and finding meaning in the old ways of life? That’s just the framework. What Paterniti’s really writing about is storytelling itself.”  Yes – though I think this reviewer misses one small point, that the story is also about letting go of a fantasy of an idealized life, along with the big sexy story.  The Boston Globe loved it, calling it “a classic example of how the tale of getting the tale can, in the right hands, be storytelling gold.”  The reviewer adds that Paterniti “gets to the bottom of this instinct to narrate, especially through loss.”  NPR similarly raved, “It is a wonderful book that can take so simple a thing and in it find much that is profound.”

I think “profound” is a big claim; the book feels a little too self-indulgent for that, but it has its truths, and they’re told entertainingly.

My review:

In 1991, as a struggling young writer working as a proofreader for the fabled Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., Michael Paterniti chanced upon a description of the most expensive cheese the deli sold. The rich, dense and intense cheese was made in small batches in Guzman, a tiny hill town in Castille, Spain, from an ancient family recipe, with milk collected daily from cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinas’s own sheep.

Still obsessed a decade later, Paterniti found himself in Ambrosio’s “telling room”–a harvest room and neighborhood gathering place–listening to the story of the “world’s greatest cheese,” along with hints about the terrible betrayal that led the end of Ambrosio’s cheese business. Seduced by the charismatic cheesemaker and his larger-than-life story of accomplishment, loss, revenge and betrayal, Paterniti was determined to write a book about the mysterious fate of the cheese. He returned to Guzman often over the next 10 years, even moving with his growing family for months at a time. As he uncovered the information that finally solved the puzzle, he began to understand his real story was not about the cheese, but about one man’s attachment to an idealized version of life–and his ultimate acceptance of his own choices.

Funny, exuberant, celebratory and sometimes over-the-top in its enthusiasms and story-telling, with digressions and footnotes as long as stand-alone chapters, The Telling Room will entertain while it reminds the reader of the human need for story and, finally, acceptance.

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