A Taste of Love, by Theodora Fitzgibbon review: fabulous cover, fabulous book

In a memoir that is part Austen, part Mitford yet completely Theodora, the wonderful ‘Irish Times’ food writer gives you a ringside seat to her glamorous life, writes Domini Kemp

Sat, May 16, 2015, 00:56


Book Title:
A Taste of Love


Theodora FitzGibbon

Gill & Macmillan

Guideline Price:

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. The exception may prove the rule, for Theodora FitzGibbon’s merged autobiographies, published as A Taste of Love, should be judged by its stylish cover.

This is the life story of a wonderful writer who produced more than 30 books of food and fiction, as well as being the Irish Times food writer for more than 20 years. That is a position that I now humbly hold, so it is fascinating to read about the glamorous – and rather different – lifestyle FitzGibbon had.

But back to the cover. It is a studio photograph of her from 1939 – she was at different times a model, a muse and an actor – and her strong profile is “glamorised” by a long cigarette, the smoke twirling up through the Eiffel Tower above which warplanes fly. At the bottom is a photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge. It is a clever cover, and although it represents only a short period in her life it sets the tone for a book full of glamour and adventure.

It starts brilliantly, plunging you straight into the atmosphere of prewar Paris. FitzGibbon was a natural writer, wise and clever, and her musings about life are so insightful. When loitering at a cafe in Paris, without a companion or too much money, she notices a glamorous man whom she hopes will notice her.

Soon, however, he is joined by a gorgeous, elegant woman, whom he proceeds to charm over some champagne. This sight of pleasure leaves the young FitzGibbon feeling “very thirsty”, and she writes that the couple’s subsequent revelry “quite took the gold from the autumn morning”.

Using her concise wit, she perfectly captures those in-between years for women – no longer teen but not quite grown up – when one longs to be glamorous and desired – and taken seriously, as well as invited to drink champagne, in Paris, by a handsome Frenchman.

These memoirs give you a ringside seat to what life was like before, during and after the second World War. It is clear from FitzGibbons’s stories that young men and women were keen to do and feel all the things that the war might now allow them. This gave their existence a certain frisson and sense of recklessness, as the young people were freed from family life and their youthful hope carried them through those dark days.

Creative bunch

FitzGibbon, who was born in London but had Irish connections and family, also hung out with an extremely creative bunch. Poets (including Dylan and Caitlin Thomas), writers and artists all relentlessly peddling their wares to stay afloat.

Like many of her contemporaries she was often in a state of financial turmoil, which followed her throughout her life, but she accepted this uncertainty as just a part of life rather than any kind of deterrent.

It was clear that she put value in being surrounded by beauty, whether the beauty of nature or the beauty of artistic and creative genius, found in the museums she frequented. She adored the challenge and banter of brilliant minds, all kinds of culture and her precious books.

Money seemed to come and go quite easily. Some of it was earned on stage, on film or as a model – the latter a career she never liked – some was acquired through family connections, but she always seemed to land on her feet. Maybe it was the loyalty of her set, but you get the sense that the war created bonds of sharing, sacrifice and generosity that our modern world cannot comprehend.

At times you forget this is an autobiography, as it reads more like a fabulous novel, reminding me of Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky. FitzGibbons’s voice remains witty even when faced with personal tragedy and a broken heart, and her clever observations have long since stayed with me; a woman to whom she did not take, for example, had “large blue eyes with as much warmth in them as a seagull’s”. Such perfect images that will make me chuckle the next time I see a seagull’s cold, dead eyes.

The war also influenced her cooking skills, which would come in handy when she eventually turned to cookery writing. If you were able to transform horse tongues and milk powder into dazzling dinner-party fare you must have had some skill.

Fun with a capital F

Food peppers the book, but not in an annoying foodie way. It’s just that food was scarce – they were often terribly hungry – and these were folks who lived life to the full and loved the good times. When they were flush, which was only ever temporarily, they dined out, drank champagne and had fun with a capital F. When completely skint, or under siege during the London bombings during the Blitz, they simply made do with scraps.

London pubs feature a lot, but, as she explains, these were places you went to because you craved company rather than endless supplies of booze. Sitting at home with the scream of sirens, not knowing if that night was to be your last, forced one to seek out the comfort of old friends and past lovers.

Towards the end of the war she married the writer Constantine FitzGibbon, and it started well. Over the years, however, the stress and strains of the war and the delicate temperament of such a creative force, worn thin by alcoholism, miscarriages, rejection, infidelity and disloyalty, eventually pushed her out the door.

But she had stints in Manhattan, Bermuda and Italy before finally realising that she needed to end the marriage – she divorced Constantine after 15 years – and go home. Which at that time was Ireland.

FitzGibbon’s passing mention of an earlier miscarriage is done in such a way as to remind you that stoic practicality was the only way to cope with tragedy for this generation of women. Falling to pieces wasn’t an option. Her strength of character remained, even in her weaker moments, a constant source of inspiration throughout this wonderful memoir.

The book whips along, despite being two books in one,but sometimes you feel left out, as though just on the fringes of a dazzling party. If it were a novel you would be cross that more picture painting wasn’t going on. As it is, there’s almost an expectation that you should know all the players.

Yet, when talking about the war, her father and her feelings towards the men she loved, she captures brilliantly our relationship with that maddening thing called love. Especially the detrimental kind that eventually forced her to leave Constantine and find a kinder, truer love, with the film-maker George Morrison, back in Ireland in the 1960s.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s part Austen, part Mitford and yet completely Theodora. What a dame.

Domini Kemp writes about food in the Irish Times Magazine each Saturday