Stretching between turn-of-the-century Paris and contemporary Canada, Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is the story of three women whose lives intersect across time to reveal the intrinsic bonds of our collective and personal histories. It is a rich and compassionate debut, a novel that encourages us to explore the depths of love and memory, of life and of art.
Unable to escape the pain of her unrequited love for Max Segal, Marie Prévost travels to Paris in order to study the writing of her other great amour: the novelist Marcel Proust. Marie is bilingual and works as a simultaneous translator in Montreal, and believes that reading Proust’s original papers will give her insights into love and loss that just may mend her broken heart. But when Marie arrives in Paris, Marcel remains as elusive as Max: the strict officials at the Bibliotèque Nationale only allow her access to the peripheral papers of File 263 -- a much ignored and poorly catalogued collection of the diaries kept by Jeanne Proust, Marcel’s mother. Despite the head librarian’s opinion that they contain only the “natterings of a housewife,” Marie begins to translate them, and discovers that Jean Proust’s diary is as illuminating for what is not said as what is there.
Entwined with Marie’s story are the diary entries that she has translated: Jeanne Proust’s records of day-to-day life in her Paris household, which make up the second strand of this novel. Jeanne’s diary includes all aspects of life at 9 Boulevard Malesherbes, everything from the difficulties of cutting rich desserts from the dinner menu to the latest Parisian headlines to her fears for the health and literary ambitions of Marcel. She’s a worrier, Madame Proust, but also ferociously protective and supportive of her frail son, and the trials of her small world come across as powerfully as the goings-on outside her doors. Madame Proust’s diary entries, particularly those from the height of the Dreyfus Affair, also convey her experiences as a Jewish woman within a prominent Catholic family and a privileged social class. And it is this thread that makes Marie recognize the difficulties of finding the woman’s true voice, given the atrocities to come during the Second World War.
As she continues her work, Marie increasingly explores the devastation of the Holocaust and wonders about our collective responsibility to remembering -- and recording -- it’s truths. Her explorations of Paris, first limited to the Proustian tour, begin to include memorial sites such as the one at Drancy, a transit camp on the route to Auschwitz. During her travels she comes across references to Max’s mother’s family, the Bensimons, and begins to make connections between the overbearing mother Max so often complains about and Madame Proust. She also starts to recognize the horrible burden Sarah Segal must carry.
Sarah’s story is the third strand of this novel. Sarah Segal -- née Bensimon, then Simon -- was sent to Canada from France at age twelve, just as the Nazis were beginning to round up Parisian Jews. Growing up with her foster family in Toronto, she is never able to escape the loss of her parents, and as a young woman she travels back to Paris to discover that they did, in fact, die at Auschwitz. But despite -- and perhaps due to -- finding out what happened to them, Sarah is unable to fully adjust to her life in Canada. She doesn’t know how to communicate with her son or her husband, and finds even the most mundane domestic events overwhelming. It is only when she retreats to her kitchen, determined to fuse her French and Jewish histories by mastering a kosher version of classic French cuisine, that she begins to face her sorrow head on.
Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen is Kate Taylor’s first novel, and has been highly praised by reviewers. Most comment on Taylor’s wonderful ability to weave together three distinct stories in such a way that the larger truths emerge from among their combined details, and on the subtle way she is able to meld history and fiction. As one literary critic has stated, “Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen marks the stunning emergence of a writer from whom we can expect much in the future.”
Kate Taylor was born in France and raised in Ottawa, and now makes Toronto her home. As a teenager, she knew that she would be a writer, though she pursued not fiction but journalism, a passion she discovered in high school. While attending Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, Taylor wrote for her school’s newspaper, and she continued this work while attending university -- first writing for the University of Toronto’s student papers, then achieving her Masters degree in journalism at the University of Western Ontario -- and later at such publications as The London Free Press and The Hamilton Spectator. In 1989 Taylor was hired by The Globe and Mail, and from 1995 to 2003 she served as the paper’s theatre critic, winning two Nathan Cohen Awards for her reviews. In September 2003 she took on a new assignment, writing a twice-weekly column about cultural issues for the paper’s arts section. She has also contributed to Canadian Art, Applied Arts, and CBC Radio’s The Arts Today, and is the author of Painters (1989), a biography of Canadian artists written for children.
Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen, Taylor’s first novel, also owes a debt to her high-school years. Much like Marie Prévost in the novel, Taylor was introduced to the writing of Marcel Proust in one of her French classes. “He’s the first serious author I understood as a teenager,” she has said. “Great authors don’t speak to adolescents very effectively because they’re writing about stuff they haven’t experienced yet: Love, death and big ideas. But when Proust wrote that just the taste of a madeleine could trigger so many memories, it was an experience I recognized.” After working her way through the many volumes of Proust’s epic novel Remembrance of Things Past (now retitled In Search of Lost Time), she turned to reading about his life.
It was only when the initial idea for Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen came to Kate Taylor that she considered writing a work of fiction. She had been reading biographies of Marcel Proust at the time, and in the tidbits of information included about his mother, Jeanne Proust, Taylor saw similarities to the women she knew: middle-aged 20th-century women somewhat at odds with their surroundings and their families, in part due to their pre-immigration experiences in Europe. At that moment Taylor started making the parallels that would underpin and link the three narratives of the book, and knew that the full story was one that simply needed to be told in fiction: “This to me was a way of addressing certain stories, certain emotions, certain themes that are never going to be addressed in a theatre review, because it’s always addressing what someone else has done.”
It took five years for Taylor to write this novel and find a publisher, but she relished in being able to lose herself in the creative process in a way that was very different from her journalistic work. As she commented in one interview, “Part of the attraction of writing novels for a journalist is the big project, the thing you get to live with as opposed to ‘get it done today and then it’s off to the bottom of the bird cage.’ I certainly loved living in that private world. It was like living a fantasy.” Still, despite the differences in the work at hand, Taylor found the investigative and research skills of her journalistic career to be invaluable to her writing, particularly while reading Proust’s letters and rereading the Proust biographies, taking extensive notes on the key events in the Prousts’ family life. From there, she was able to find Madame Proust’s fictional voice and create the diary, then move on to fleshing out the 20th-century characters. “The marathon that is writing a novel proved equally joyful and a whole lot longer than I’d expected,” she has said. “Its frustrations could last for weeks, but the rewards it offered my imagination have endured for years.”
“Usually it is a sufficient accomplishment for an author to set a work of fiction in a single place and time and create characters whose voices and actions resonate with authenticity. It is much more of an achievement for an author to set a novel in three different locales and three distinct periods and still have it emerge with genuine characters whose thoughts, words and actions move and inspire … Language and history, like love itself, lie at the heart of this poignant and multi-textured novel … [an] intelligent and accomplished work of fiction.” -- Winnipeg Free Press
“Magnificent.... Like Michael Cunningham in his prizewinning The Hours, Taylor adopts a tripartite structure to show how events in a writer’s life and themes in his work have resonance for subsequent generations. Taylor’s is, however, much the richer, subtler and less deterministic work.... truly inspired.” -- The Times (U.K.)
“Take this splendid book to bed with you.... It will be a surprise if Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen doesn’t work its way on to thousands of bedside tables with the same word-of-mouth recommendation that turned Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake into a bestseller.” -- The Globe and Mail
“Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen reads like a dream, meticulously crafted and researched, sophisticated in style and structure.” -- National Post
“Kate Taylor achieves, with seemingly effortless grace, a remarkable feat: the near-perfect balance between being true to history and writing an engaging and fictional tale... In a harmonious weaving of history and fiction, the author recreates the essence of time past, gently enveloping her characters in their context without ever overwhelming them… Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen marks the stunning emergence of a writer from whom we can expect much in the future.” -- Calgary Herald
“The strength of Taylor’s novel is in its evocation of Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The social and family life of the middle-class Prousts feels both accurate and imaginative.” -- The Gazette (Montreal)
“This is a remarkable first novel -- thoughtful, versatile and an extremely good read.” -- Penelope Lively
“…the parallel portraits of old and new worlds are vividly atmospheric. This well-written, melancholy story contains a lot to admire -- not least Marie's conclusion: ‘I have found the cure for heartbreak. It is literature.’” -- Sunday Telegraph (U.K.)
“A work of sensitivity and depth from an author who writes perceptively, with many moments of lyricism.” -- The Vancouver Sun
“Taylor’s meticulously crafted novel is an impressive debut.” -- The Daily Mail (U.K.)
“Taylor has tackled these ideas with tenderness and subtlety; it is an ambitious project by a promising writer.” -- Times Literary Supplement (U.K.)
“Fans of A.S. Byatt will be intrigued by this book.” -- Flare
“Moving dextrously between Paris and Canada, Kate Taylor weaves together these disparate strands with great skill, sympathy and frequently arresting prose. She writes most beguilingly about identity, belonging and exile. But above all, these stories issue sharp warnings about the power and limitations of love, especially the parental variety.” -- The Guardian (U.K.)
“A moving meditation on Parisian and Toronto history.” -- Maclean’s