Family lunch, Franzen style…July 28, 2009
I’ve just taken Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections down from the shelf, again, because I’m at a reading loss, with nothing good enough to replace The Line of Beauty coming my way yet (suggestions, anyone?).
Anyway, I have once again come across this superb mealtime encounter between abrasive Denise, a chef, and her ageing parents Enid and Alfred.
It starts with Enid’s description of a lavish party.
“The desserts were a foot tall!” Enid said, her instincts having told her that Denise didn’t care about pyramids of shrimp. “It was elegant, elegant. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
“I’m sure it was very nice,” Denise said.
“The Dribletts really do things super-deluxe. I’d never seen a dessert that tall. Have you?”
The subtle signs that Denise was exercising patience – the slightly deeper breaths she took, the soundless way she set her fork down on her plate and took a sip of wine and set the glass back down – were more hurtful to Enid than a violent explosion.
“I’ve seen tall desserts,” Denise said.
“Are they tremendously difficult to make?”
Denise folded her hands in her lap and exhaled slowly. “It sounds like a great party. I’m glad you had fun.”
Enid had, true enough, had fun at Dean and Trish’s party, and she’d wished that Denise had been there to see for herself how elegant it was. At the same time, she was afraid that Denise would not have found the party elegant at all, that Denise would have picked apart its specialness until there was nothing left but ordinariness. Her daughter’s taste was a dark spot in Enid’s vision, a hole in her experience through which her own pleasures were forever threatening to leak and dissipate.
“I guess there’s no accounting for tastes,” she said.
“That’s true,” Denise said. “Although some tastes are better than others.”
Alfred had bent low over his plate to ensure that any salmon or haricots verts that fell from his fork would land on china. But he was listening. He said, “Enough.”
“That’s what everybody thinks,” Enid said. “Everybody thinks their taste is the best.”
“But most people are wrong,” Denise said.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own taste,” Enid said. “Everybody gets one vote in this country.”
“Enough,” Alfred said to Denise. “You’ll never win.”
“You sound like a snob,” said Enid.
“Mother, you’re always telling me how much you like a good home-cooked meal. Well, that’s what I like, too. I think there’s a kind of Disney vulgarity in a foot-tall dessert. You are a better cook than–“
“Oh, no.” Enid shook her head. “I’m a nothing cook.”
“That’s not true at all! Where do you think I–“
“Not from me,” Enid interrupted. “I don’t know where my children got their talents. But not from me. I’m a nothing as a cook. A big nothing.” (How strangely good it felt to say this! It was like putting scalding water on a poison-ivy rash.)
Denise straightened her back and raised her glass. Enid, who all her life had been helpless not to observe the goings-on on other people’s plates, had watched Denise take a three-bite portion of salmon, a small helping of salad, and a crust of bread. The size of each was a reproach to the size of Enid’s. Now Denise’s plate was empty and she hadn’t taken seconds of anything.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Enid said.
“Yes. That was my lunch.”
“You’ve lost weight.”
“In fact not.”
“Well, don’t lose any more,” Enid said with the skimpy laugh with which she tried to hide large feelings.
Alfred was guiding a forkful of salmon and sorrel sauce to his mouth. The food dropped off his fork and broke into violently shaped pieces.