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Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella

various flavours of coffee capella Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella

In my family the humble stove-top espresso is a powerful signifier, marking both time, such as the beginning of a day or the contemplative lull after an evening meal, and occasion: family gatherings to celebrate births, marriages, deaths come to mind. There are so many joys to what is really such a simple ritual: the wincingly tight espresso cup around ones finger, the steamy warmth sweating between the pressing web of ones fingers, that frank and bitter fragrance, so sharp and determined against the sweet waft of biscotti or wafers. Meeting for coffee is a social event vastly different from meeting for a meal, or meeting for a drink of the alcoholic persuasion: coffee is versatile, ubiquitous, and comforting. There is something about coffee that appeals to the mainstream, the cultural elite, and everyone between. It is an elixir that heals, that promotes, that soothes, that poses a challenge to both the new and the experienced palate. Coffee is divisive, gaining a passionate lover with each passionate enemy, and drawing its share of pilgrims in search of that elusive, perfect brew. In The Various Flavours of Coffee,'Anthony Capella, author of a number of food-themed novels, including the recent Empress of Ice-Cream (see my review)'explores the growth in the demand for coffee, and the appreciation of the same, in early twentieth century London.


Foppish gadabout and would-be poet Robert Wallis delights in his own self-importance, whiling away his days in about as useless a manner as he can manage. However, Robert gradually begins to realise that there is a certain disjunct between his spendthrift ways and his less than substantial income, and thus when he is offered a job helping to develop a taxonomy of the various flavours of coffee, he finds himself, despite his aversion to the lurid vulgarity of writing for money, accepting. Of course, the fact that his employers daughter Emily is a highly eligible young lass does help things along somewhat, and Robert, using all of the (admittedly minimal) charm available to him, seeks to woo Emily. But fate, economics, and stern fathers intervene, and Robert soon finds himself shipped off to Africa to further familiarise himself with the life cycle of the coffee bean. After a number of impressively humbling failures in the spheres of coffee-growing and romance, Robert returns home to a London that is deeply unfamiliar: Emily is lost to him, the coffee trade is undergoing significant change, and the suffragette movement is at its heightand all of these elements have a substantial impact on the way in which Roberts life will eventually play out.

My Thoughts

In reading The Various Flavours of Coffee Im reminded of the work of science fiction writer Ted Chiang, whose short stories typically mash together a number of seemingly disparate ideas into a coherent whole. Capellas novel, however, while combining several key themes and ideas, lacks a little in the cohesion stakes, and one cant help but feel that had the author picked one particular narrative or thematic element upon which to focus the book would have been far stronger. As it is, the book is not more than the sum of its parts, but is rather lessened as a result as it struggles to cohere coffee-flavour notation, the norms of early twentieth century London life, intercultural and interclass forbidden love, treks to Africa and Brazil complete with a sort of cursory anthropological analysis, an examination of the slave-owner relationship, feminism and the suffragette movement, and the micro- and macroeconomics of the coffee trade. Taken alone, any one of these elements would have made for a fascinating read, but the combination of the same is rather like mixing a number of strong and heady coffee blends and then re-brewing them without changing the beans: simultaneously overwhelming and oddly diluted. Capella himself appears to be aware of the way in which his various narrative choices threaten the pacing and general cohesiveness of the book, and as the book progresses it shifts from being told only from Roberts perspective to Emilys as well, giving the effect that the author is trying desperately to cling to the floating balloon of his narrative. This sudden shift to multiple point of view characters is something I noticed in The Empress of Ice-Cream, occurring similarly when the narrative, originally taking part in one geographical area, began to travel abroad.

In addition to this, Walliss narration is full of pomp and self-satisfaction, and is extraordinarily self-conscious. His references to dandyism and Oscar Wilde are so frequent that one suspects he might well be wearing, beneath the gaudy sleeves of his subcontinent-style garments, a What Would Oscar Wilde Do? bracelet. Unfortunately, where Wilde has seemingly unlimited amounts of charm, Walliss own charms are rather more finite, and his endless quips, pedantry, and insufferable know-it-allness become tryinga fact that the author/narrator explicitly acknowledges, apologising for the ceaselessly boorish behaviour of Wallis. There are moments that are truly fascinating, and the reader can tell that Capella has undertaken some rigorous research, but the depiction of Walliss descent into slatternly slovenliness becomes rather dull after a while, and it takes some time for the novel to really get going.'Wallis, of course, does eventually redeem himself, spending rather less time in brothels and rather more time being an upstanding young lad on the front lines of the suffragette movement, but this redemption occurs only towards the end of the novel, and after a good deal of narrative circumlocution.

There are parts of the novel that, taken separately, are truly excellent. Scattered throughout the pages are breath-taking descriptions of the aromas and notes of coffee, and some of the exposition is quite beautiful. The tales of Roberts being fleeced by a stunning slave is highly entertaining, as is the account of the time he spends in Africa and elsewhere abroad, but these read more as a short story than as an integrated part of a larger narrative, and one suspects could quite easily have been excised from the novel without negative consequences. The discussion of the diabolical economics behind the coffee trade is also rather interesting, but again feels more like an appendix or a footnote than truly part of the wide narrative. Emily as a character is fascinating, too, and her moral and intellectual strength, combined with her head for business and her actions as part of the suffragette movement make for some excellent readingand of which I wish there had been rather more. The chapters from her perspective are some of the more interesting in the book, and to be honest I would have been quite happy to have read a novel written solely from her point of view, or to have read a narrower narrative that allowed more focus on the business and (potential) romantic relationship between Emily and Robert, rather than being whisked off to various exotic locales. As it is, however, the rangy narrative and Capellas love of the melodramatic make for a plot that meanders and digresses, but that ends with a dramatic, but perhaps not entirely believable, or necessary, ending in which A Point Is Made and where all of the various preceding elements of the novel are jammed together into a huge snowball of a conclusion.


From its opening pages I was expecting The Various Flavours of Coffee to read rather more like an espresso or a long black than the Starbucks-esque frappuccino with syrups, sauces, and chocolate savings that it turned out to be. While it contains some exquisite elements in terms of prose, historical detail, character, and theme, these are hidden beneath a splendiferous layering of prose-level calisthenics and narrative digression that, like a topping of cream, smothers what might otherwise be an excellent blend.

Rating: star Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellastar Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellahalfstar Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellablankstar Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellablankstar Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella

With thanks to Collins Booksellers Werribee for the review copy

Purchase The Various Flavours of Coffee: Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

The Various Flavours of Coffee appears in our list of books for coffee-lovers

See also our review of The Empress of Ice-Cream

Other books by Anthony Capella:

food of love Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellawedding officer capella Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capellaempress of ice cream small capella Review: The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella


  1. I have very much enjoyed other Capella novels, but this one didnt really work for me for many of the same reasons that you mentioned in your review.

    I am still intending to read Empress of Ice Cream, and will be hoping that this book was just an anomaly and not how his future novels are going to be.

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, Marg. I quite enjoyed The Empress of Ice-Cream, and felt that it was quite a bit stronger than this one. This one had a lot of potential, but just never really pulled together into a tight narrative. I loved some of the coffee writing, and some of the themes, but it suffered a bit from kitchen sink syndrome!

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