Host’s ta­ble talk lifts the younger guest’s gloom

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

“I heard about the prom­ise Ed­ward made to his dy­ing wife long be­fore I met him,” Is­abella Vin­cent writes in this el­e­gant mem­oir set in New York. The prom­ise was sim­ple yet mo­men­tous: to keep on liv­ing.

Af­ter Paula, Ed­ward’s beloved wife of 69 years dies, their daugh­ter (who lives in Canada) ar­ranges for her friend Is­abel Vin­cent, a re­porter, to visit him for din­ner and check up on him. From hum­ble be­gin­nings, the din­ner turns into the first of many. It is the start of an un­likely friend­ship that is re­ward­ing and even pro­found for both par­ties. Be­fore long, Vin­cent is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Ed­ward’s apart­ment on Roo­sevelt Is­land in the East River. She is charmed by his old-world hos­pi­tal­ity: “Din­ners with Ed­wards were rit­u­als im­bued with a sense of oc­ca­sion.”

She soon feels com­fort­able open­ing up to Ed­ward about her own feel­ings of de­spair. Her mar­riage is fray­ing and she and her hus­band are hop­ing their re­cent move to Roo­sevelt Is­land func­tions as a clean slate. But the frac­tures in their re­la­tion­ship only seem to deepen.

Her pro­fes­sional life is sim­i­larly dispir­it­ing as her switch from a gen­teel Cana­dian pub­li­ca­tion to the rough and tum­ble of the New York Post news­room proves a tough one. Early com­mu­ni­ca­tions from her edi­tor in­clude an email sim­ply ti­tled “WTF?”.

Rather than sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity to wal­low in joint misery, he wel­comes the like-minded com­pany and she be­comes “Ed­ward’s spe­cial project” as he turns his mind to the puzzle of her abid­ing un­hap­pi­ness.

While she has al­most given up on find­ing mean­ing­ful con­nec­tion when she meets Ed­ward, he gen­tly pushes her to a more hope­ful, so­cial frame of mind. “He knew that par­adise was not a place,” she ob­serves, “but the peo­ple in your life.”

Their friend­ship al­lows Ed­ward to keep the mem­o­ries of his rare, pure love for the vi­va­cious Paula alive in sto­ries.

In Ed­ward, she finds some­one who reads peo­ple well. He knows some­times just to say noth­ing and pour her a fin­ger of bour­bon; other times he pro­vides gra­cious com­pany and per­fectly icy gin mar­ti­nis.

The im­mac­u­lately pre­pared food and match­ing drinks are no small part of their meet­ings. De­scribed as “nei­ther a snob nor an in­suf­fer­able foodie”, the older man cre­ates meals of old­fash­ioned ex­cel­lence: Oys­ters Rock­e­feller, beef cooked in goose fat and a per­fect ap­ple galette (the se­cret, he in­sists, is crushed ice).

This is cook­ing with care, the shar­ing of lov­ingly cre­ated meals as a deeply so­cial act. Vin­cent’s ac­count of his cook­ing is vivid and stylish and acts as a de­fence of sorts of the ma­ligned art of con­nois­seur­ship, here seen as a way to savour life and in­fuse sim­ple tasks with mean­ing.

Of­ten his meth­ods are the re­sult of years of trial and er­ror or ju­di­cious use of passed-down ad­vice. He dis­misses cook­books (“It’s just cook­ing, dar­ling,” he says) and like a ma­gi­cian he re­fuses to share his se­crets with peo­ple he thinks are not equally se­ri­ous about the craft.

At other times, his deeply in­grained southern gen­tle­man per­sona brings with it some out­dated no­tions about wom­an­hood.

He can also be dif­fi­cult — head­strong with his daugh­ters and harsh when his pen­chant for dis­pens­ing life ad­vice be­comes too pointed. Yet there is much to ad­mire about how Ed­ward goes about his twi­light years.

He clings to a bullish and in­tel­li­gent brand of op­ti­mism and sur­rounds him­self with a di­verse, ec­cen­tric bunch of peo­ple. He keeps him­self busy with art projects and his ded­i­ca­tion to cook­ing and en­ter­tain­ing.

Pitched some­where be­tween the philo­soph­i­cal lofti­ness of My Din­ner with An­dre and the home­spun warmth of Tues­days with Mor­rie, this is told in re­laxed, cir­cuitous style with fre­quent di­gres­sions on Ed­ward and Paula’s early ca­reers in the arts as well as the his­tory of the unglam­orous but fas­ci­nat­ing com­mu­nity they live in.

It’s a low-key af­fair in the best pos­si­ble sense of the word and while Ed­ward fills his apart­ment with Cole Porter and Ella Fitzger­ald songs, it is eas­ier to imag­ine the muted so­phis­ti­ca­tion of Erik Satie bub­bling un­der­neath their con­ver­sa­tions.

Even­tu­ally, in­evitably, the for­tunes of the un­likely pair start to di­verge. Ed­ward is in­creas­ingly los­ing his friends and starts think­ing about how he wants his af­fairs to be set­tled af­ter his death. Vin­cent finds new shoots of hope in the for­merly sun­less vista of her per­sonal life.

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