The Various Flavors of Coffee

Written by Anthony Capella
Review by Sue Asher

At the close of the 19th century, Robert Wallis is young unemployed poet with romantic ideals and a languid disposition who nevertheless appreciates a good cup of coffee. When served a bad cup, he describes it too loudly and too well, and is overheard by Samuel Pinker, a wealthy coffee merchant. As a consequence, Wallis acquires a job, writing a guide to the various flavors of coffee to help standardize the purchasing of beans. He also acquires an assistant, Pinker’s daughter Emily.

The poet’s life is irrevocably changed by people who are more energetic, ambitious and powerful than he. Wallis is not particularly socially conscious, nor is he an adventurer, but he can never say no to a Pinker. He works because he needs money, yet he is indifferent to the fortunes being made around him. He is motivated by love and lust, often confusing the two. Swept along by historical tides of British colonialism, coffee importation, the rise of the stock exchange, suffragism and the labor movement, he plays his small roles reluctantly, then finds his greatest contribution is always, ever, his ability to describe. As he tells his story with an “exasperated affection” for his younger self, the reader gradually comes to feel the same.

This is a lushly written book about a flawed but fundamentally decent man making his way in a world where, as with a cup of coffee, “good” will mean different things to different people.