This is one of those rare books that seem to defy easy classification. Part history, part romance, part fiction, part reality and all enjoyable, this is Anthony Capellaís third novel. His love for coffee and the legends of history is evident on each page. The central character, Robert Wallis, is the classic starving poet in late Victorian times (1896), whose way with words gets him a job he wasnít seeking in a trade he knows nothing about: coffee.
Hired originally to create a guide to understanding the aromas and flavors of the coffee drinking experience, his mandate is expanded with time. Working closely (too closely) with Emily Pinker, daughter of his boss, Samuel, he soon realizes that Emily is determined to improve him. Her interests in arts, literature and the slowly growing womenís movement are antithetical to Robert. He prefers his self-serving life, visiting the local brothels and bars regularly, and never thinking about anything more serious than where he will buy his next gaudy coat.
Despite his worst intentions, though, he is drawn to Emily just as he is drawn to the world of coffee. The novelís chapters are headed by quotes from books of coffee history and tasting, and as Robert is sucked into this mysterious world, so is the reader. Our palates are being developed and educated, too, and as Robert discovers how many words there are to describe Brazilian or African coffee beans, we begin to appreciate the ages-old coffee trade history. When Robert and Emily get a bit too ďcloseĒ, Samuel steps in with an offer that Robert canít refuse: Go to Africa, start up a new plantation for me, and if you are successful, you may have Emilyís hand in marriage.
Thus a new chapter in Robertís life begins. Taken under the wing of Hector, a sun-burnt planter who was one of Samuelís first apprentices, he travels by ship and then overland by camel to reach the 50,000 acres that Pinker has recently purchased. Although he and Hector have nothing in common, and Hector has secrets that Robert knows nothing about, they come to an understanding in their common goal of creating a coffee plantation. The land is harsh and unforgiving, and a forest of trees must be cut before the ground can even be prepared for planting. Then there will be four years of careful cultivation to bring the crop to full fruition. Robert despairs of ever seeing Emily again but is fascinated by the tribal life nearby and the slave-trade routes that pass their acreage.
One of these slaves changes Robertís life. Fikre is beauty personified. Raised in a brothel and trained not only in womanly arts but also in languages, chess and the skill of making coffee, she is owned by a merchant who bought her at a slave sale. Intended as a virgin offering for the harem of the local potentate, she is angry and bitter about her slave status; in Robert, she sees an opportunity to finally rid herself of the merchant. Robert has fallen in love, but he is not unrealistic Ė any future for a black former slave and a white man is severely limited. He breaks his ties with Pinkerís business and with Emily, who supposedly awaits his return in London. He has grown in intelligence, status and maturity, but Fikre may have other plans. The novel never loses a beat in telling Robertís remarkable tale, and throughout his African travails and personal hardships, he is always reaching, grasping, for his future.
Meanwhile, back in London, Pinkerís trade is undergoing many changes. Coffee is becoming used by the average homemaker, and to garner his share of the market, he begins to create a brand and a label to market. Emily helps with these efforts, but more and more she finds her interests deflected by politics and the rise of the suffrage movement. She begins to realize that although her father educated her and her two sisters and allowed them a place in the family company if they so desired, he still believes that a womanís place is in the home. As she struggles against her fatherís dominance and absorbs the politics of feminism, her fate once more becomes entwined with Robertís.
With the book drawing to a close, we are caught up in the times at the turn of the 20th century. Womenís medicine, (and the diagnosis of ďhysteriaĒ) is discussed, and the account of the evolution of coffee from bean to bulk ground. Although historically fascinating, it is also incredible to read about one manís 19th-century life through the eyes of a 21st-century reader. Starbucks and Peets owe much to these days of old, and you will never sip a cup of mocha with the same casual taste buds again.