The Ban­quet of Esther Rosenbaum

Pen­ny Simpson
  • Review
By – January 5, 2012
The Ban­quet of Esther Rosen­baum is a feast of lan­guage, in some ways akin to the feasts depict­ed in the Bib­li­cal Book of Esther. Simpson’s nov­el, though, is served on a plat­ter embell­ished with sim­i­les and metaphors so strong that their aro­mas per­me­ate the text with every page. Stuffed with Tal­mu­dic ref­er­ences, Jew­ish tra­di­tions, and Hasidic char­ac­ters, Simp­son tells a mod­ern­ized tale of Esther [Rosen­baum], a sev­en-foot-tall, fif­teen-yearold girl who, like her name­sake, grows into a woman of worth and flour­ish­es like a flower grow­ing in a swamp.”

Set in pre-war Berlin, from 1915 to 1946, this is a sto­ry of exile; at the same time, it is a social com­men­tary in which Simp­son blends the con­flicts between the sec­u­lar and non-sec­u­lar with the strug­gles of the Jew­ish peo­ple and the deca­dence and debauch­ery of the famous. Lay­ered with­in are tales of per­son­al strug­gles in an unyield­ing soci­ety at the end of one war and on the brink of anoth­er. With all that, it is also the sto­ry of Esther, an orphaned girl who believes that every­one falls away from [her] even­tu­al­ly, like dead flower heads,” an ambi­tious girl who des­per­ate­ly want[s] to walk in this world,” and a girl who is giv­en to falling in love with unat­tain­able men who rep­re­sent father fig­ures. But, it is Esther’s culi­nary tal­ents that bring her fame, and before long she is rec­og­nized as the most promi­nent chef in one of Berlin’s finest restau­rants. Foods, and the recipes she cre­ates, are her voice, her vehi­cle to feed imag­i­na­tions as greedy as hol­low stom­achs. [She] is this sto­ry and noth­ing more.”
Malv­ina D. Engel­berg, an inde­pen­dent schol­ar, has taught com­po­si­tion and lit­er­a­ture at the uni­ver­si­ty lev­el for the past fif­teen years. She is a Ph.D. can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Miami.

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