Elza's Kitchen, By Marc Fitten

The cook, her grief, her life and her lover

Marc Fitten's second novel is set, like his first, in post-communist Hungary. Elza, a divorcee in her late forties, is overcome by a deep dissatisfaction with her life in the town of Delibab. Tulip, her successful restaurant serving Hungarian classics, is beginning to bore her and even an affair with her much younger sous-chef fails to lighten her mood.

Fitten takes more than two chapters to describe Elza's ennui and so the story doesn't really get going until chapter three, when Elza decides that a review by Europe's most influential restaurant columnist, the Critic, will put her small restaurant on the map. She enlists the help of her former professors from culinary school and a plan is hatched to bring the Critic to Tulip.

While Elza's desire for change is intriguing, what she actually wants to achieve is left annoyingly vague. She is ambivalent about her relationship with the sous-chef, and refuses his offers of marriage, but is unwilling to be on her own. She opened Tulip because she loved cooking, but no longer spends time working in the kitchen. How a visit from the Critic will change her life is unclear, both to Elza and to the reader.

All the male characters save for a little Roma boy are referred to by their occupations rather than their names: the Sous-Chef, the Dishwasher, the Motorcycle Officer and, of course, the Critic. This lends a fairy-tale air to the story but does mean that the male characters sorely lack depth. Female characters fare better, and the introduction of Dora, an ambitious and pretty young pastry chef, injects conflict into Elza's personal life and into her kitchen.

The author lived in Hungary in the mid-1990s and he uses his experiences to great effect when imagining Delibab (which translates as "mirage"). Its prosperous central district fans out from an old church, a relic from the pre-communist era, towards run-down areas on the edge of town where modern developments might never reach. Not far from her restaurant, Elza discovers a ramshackle cottage where a Roma family lives. The children beg outside her restaurant and harass its customers, while the adults are portrayed as petty criminals. While this is an easy stereotype, Fitten suggests that underclasses exist whether the ruling powers are communist or capitalist. But he doesn't do much more to explore the trauma of a country moving from communism to capitalism.

Fitten luxuriates in describing the luscious flavours of Elza's cooking, from chicken paprika over noodles to the traditional delights of shepherd's goulash, but the novel works best when Fitten introduces humour, such as in the Professor of Meats and the Professor of Sauces' dogged pursuit of the elusive Critic. In the end, the ponderous opening and the lack of focus in Elza's journey make for a light but unsatisfying read.