Book Review: The Restaurant of Love Regained

Reading the novel “The Restaurant of Love Regained” is a little like eating a Tim Tam….you know it’s sickly sweet, but when you’re in the moment, it’s enjoyable.

Written by Japanese author Ito Ogawa, this short novel originally called “Shokudo Katatsumuri” (translated into English by David Karashima) is about a young woman whose boyfriend walks out with everything, forcing her to return to her mother’s home in rural Japan where she opens a tiny eatery serving “magical” food that heals hearts and souls. It was a best-seller in Japan and became a feature film. Yet the narrative is well worn (young woman returns home to find herself) and food as a healer of souls is an overdone metaphor. But what makes this novel quite charming is the quirkiness of the characters and the quintessentially Japanese way in which they communicate.

Take the protagonist, Rinko, who stops talking after her Indian boyfriend leaves her with nothing from their flat in Tokyo, except a pot of rice bran pickles she’d inherited from her beloved grandmother (rice bran pickling jars are not to be scoffed at, they are very special, talking much time and effort to mature). She talks only through written memos, which doesn’t seem to hinder her communication in her home village. Her one table a night eatery where she cooks only special dishes that the guests desire, is her new form of communication and the subtext I suppose, is that food goes straight to the heart. Yes, sickly sweet, but her menus are rather nice to read--bran pickled apples, oysters and sweet red sea bream carpaccio, sangetan soup with a whole chicken brewed in shochu, bottarga risotto with freshly harvested rice, yuzu sorbet….

Rinko’s communication with her mother, a bar madam at Bar Amour, has never been good, but towards the end of the book when her mum jumps in the bath with Rinko to confess that she has terminal cancer, I was moved. Bathing with your parents is special in Japanese family culture and much like the rice bran pickling jar, has anthropological significance–they are like family artefacts that one carries as memory, like heirlooms. So it made sense to me that this moment of truth between mother and daughter was shared in a bathtub.

The communication between Kuma, the village handybloke and mate of Rinko’s is cute too–when Rinko needs him, she rings him and plays pop singer Seiko Matsuda’s Nagisa Balcony. So kitsch, it might even verge on the artistic.

In fact, the communication between Rinko and the other characters in this novel reminds me of many other scenes from Japanese books and films where families sit in cars to have a conference or whisper through shoji (paper) screens. The indirectness is so touching, so poignant and so true.

Perusing others’ reviews of this book, there seemed to be a consensus that the pig slaughtering scenes towards the end (the pig is a pet called Hermes) was disgusting. I actually found it refreshing. After all, every bit of Hermes was used and unless you are a diehard vegan or vegetarian, it’s a bit hypocritical to criticise animal slaughtering. I liked that Rinko took responsibility for the killing and the cooking, after all, cooking is a pretty brutal art if you ask me, it’s not all about heart and soul.

So if you like kitsch, food as metaphor, a little bit of harmless chick lit because you’re laid up in bed sick, as was the case with me, then this is the book for you.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

The Restaurant of Love Regained by Ito Ogawa, originally published in English in 2012