“A well made cup of coffee is the proper beginning to an idle day. Its aroma is beguiling, its taste is sweet; yet it leaves behind only bitterness and regret. In that it resembles, surely, the pleasures of love…..Although in this case, it seems to taste of nothing much except mud. With, perhaps, a faint aftertaste of rotten apricots.”
With these words Robert Wallis seals his fate. Not that it didn’t need to be sealed. After having been expelled from Oxford (too much partying, no studying) and cut off by his father, Robert is living in London on credit from various tradesmen. He is the very picture of a dandy, dressing in the most fashionable manner, writing marginal poetry by day and visiting local brothels by night. A dissolute young man who is nevertheless endearing from the very first page.
While sitting in a cafe one morning his remark is overheard by coffee merchant Samuel Pinker. Mr. Pinker wants to develop a reference manual to describe the tastes & smells in the various coffee beans that he imports. He needs someone with a discerning palate and the vocabulary necessary to complete the task. He offers Robert the very last thing that he wants, employment. But even Robert realizes that he will not be able to maintain his lifestyle with no income, so he reluctantly accepts.
The dreadful dullness of employment is greatly reduced when Robert meets his assistant. Mr. Pinker’s lovely daughter, Emily, serves as secretary and partner in the task. Robert, of course, is attracted to her (and her father’s wealth). He feels that he is a wonderful catch, a view not shared by Mr. Pinker. In order to win her hand he is given a mission. A five year trek to Africa, to plant and grow a crop of the best kind of coffee available. Obviously this kind of job is not to Robert’s taste but again, he sees that his life has left him few options and he agrees to go.
Africa will profoundly change Robert in ways that he cannot begin to imagine. The man who returns to London has learned hard lessons and survived harrowing experiences. The years have changed London and its inhabitants, as well. When he returns he will have to rebuild his life and try create a future for himself.
Mr. Capella has written a fantastic historical novel. He brilliantly describes London at the end of the nineteenth century with all of its wonderful depth, from the glamorous upper class drawing rooms to the seedy, poverty stricken streets. Then he takes us to the dusty plains and steamy jungles of Africa and introduces us to the native people, showing us their struggle to maintain their way of life in the face of outsiders in search of wealth and land. It is a rich, evocative, compelling story and I loved it.
The Various Flavors of Coffee will be published by Bantam on September 2, 2008