About halfway through this colorful family saga, a young American named Céline encounters the celebrated and temperamental Chef Gil Halliwell. Céline, the granddaughter of a woman who once cooked for Picasso, has come to France in hopes of uncovering an important family secret, but Chef Gil is in no mood to help her.
It takes a while for these two to share a kind word. And when they do, it’s about pigeon excrement. “Seriously — it made great fertilizer! Pigeonniers were status symbols ever since Roman times,” Gil explains to Céline. “When you totted up the value of a manor house, you included how much pigeon s--- it produced!”
“Cooking for Picasso” is not a steaming pile of pigeon poop, but it is a novel about how people take what seems to be worthless and make it into something priceless. Whether it’s a woman who creates meaning from sad circumstances or a genius who finds his way through a fallow period to create his masterwork, the characters in Camille Aubray’s debut novel illustrate how essential bad is to good, life is to death and work is to art.
Aubray opens the novel 80 years ago, with a brief and little-known period of Picasso’s life, when he disappeared to a Provencal village called Juan-les-Pins, no doubt partially to evade his demanding wife and equally demanding lover. He arrives in 1936, a year before finishing “Guernica,” the painting that electrified the world.
Picasso contracts with a family restaurant for his luncheons, and the daughter, Ondine, is charged with preparing the food at his rented chateau. Before you can say “cassoulet ,” the 50-something painter and the teenage cook are inspiring each other’s best work. Picasso flies through a series of paintings in a style clearly meant to evoke the inspiration for his “Guernica” and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Ondine, her senses on fire from the Patron’s productivity, concocts more and more complicated and creative dishes. He urges her to regard her cooking as art and to take herself seriously.
Sadly, World War II interferes with Ondine’s progress — and after she moves to the United States, further tragedies develop, and the novel drags a bit. (A strange Mob-related subplot and a pair of evil stepsiblings are mostly unnecessary.) But after Ondine’s granddaughter, Céline, receives a notebook of treasured recipes, she heads to Provence in a much livelier story line. (Hint: It involves Chef Gil and a pigeonnier.)
When life gives you pigeon poop, it may mean you own something truly valuable. In “Cooking for Picasso,” Aubray slowly reveals that value lies not in what you own, but in who you are.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Camille Aubray
Ballantine. 390 pp. $27