Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ristorante Paradiso (manga) story and art by Natsume Ono

Relatively spoiler-free synopsis!

Synopsis:

Twenty-one-year old Nicoletta travels to Rome to find her mother, Olga. Olga abandoned Nicoletta 15 years ago, saying that the man she was in love with wouldn't want her if he knew she was a divorcee with a young child. Nicoletta finds Olga at Casetta dell'Orso, a restaurant owned by Olga's husband Lorenzo, the man for whom she abandoned Nicoletta.

The entire staff of Casetta dell'Orso is composed of handsome older gentlemen who wear glasses. Trying to figure out what to do with herself now that she's found her mother, Nicoletta finds herself attracted to Claudio, the restaurant's head waiter. Nicoletta convinces Olga to give her a job in the kitchen, promising her that she won't tell Lorenzo she's her daughter if she does. As far as everyone knows, Nicoletta is the daughter of a friend of Olga's.

Nicoletta settles into life at the restaurant. She becomes serious about learning to cook well. She spends time talking to her mother, and, as she falls more in love with Claudio, she begins to get a better perspective of her mother and why she did what she did. She learns more about the staff members of the restaurant - including that Claudio is a divorcee who may or may not still be in love with his ex-wife.

Although Nicoletta becomes friends with both Claudio and her mother, the various secrets and complicated relationships mean that things can't necessarily remain as they are.

Commentary:

I got this manga via ILL after reading a review about it on Unshelved. Plus, I really liked the cover art. It would have been awesome if the same look could have been used throughout the entire volume.

I wasn't really sure, at first, what to write about this manga. Looking for inspiration, I reread the whole thing, and I found I actually enjoyed it more the second time around. This is not my usual manga fare, and, although it hasn't made it onto my "to buy" list, it was a refreshing change.

When I first got this manga, I was a little disappointed. Like I said, part of what prompted me to request this was my enjoyment of the cover art. The artwork inside the volume features thinner linework, and my first thought was that it was kind of ugly. The artwork didn't make Claudio look as handsome as Nicoletta said he was, and none of the three women featured most prominently in the volume (Nicoletta, Olga, and Gabriella) can necessarily be identified as female right away when they make their appearances in the volume.

What can I say, I cut my manga teeth on clean lines and shojo sparklies. Ono's artwork eventually grew on me, and, like the story itself, I liked it more the second time I read the volume. It's definitely a recognizable style, and I quickly figured out I'd seen examples of Ono's work before, even if I had never read anything by her before. Ono is also the author/artist for House of Five Leaves. I'll have to try that out sometime, too - I'm impressed with the flexibility it must take to create both a work about an Italian restaurant and a work about a masterless samurai.

Well, back to this work, Ristorante Paradiso. The first time I read it, I was focused more on the general story. As a romance, it didn't particularly grab me. Nicoletta showed very little concern for Claudio's feelings when she decided to test her own out, and I was glad when her mother came and interrupted Nicoletta in the process of getting ready to jump Claudio. Claudio and Nicoletta's relationship was at its best during the scene where Nicoletta told Claudio the situation with her mother. Even then, I could just as easily have believed a friendship would grow from that as a romance.

What I did really like in that first reading was the relationship between Nicoletta and her mother. I caught some of the little things, like Olga's attempts to establish and deepen a relationship with her daughter by buying her gifts, and they made me smile, even as I wondered whether any of that could ever be enough to make up for what Olga had done.

That, for me, was one of the failings of the manga. As nice as it was to read something in which everyone actually sat down and talked about their problems for once, it felt like some problems, especially the 15-year long secret that was Nicoletta, got resolved too quickly and easily. It was easier to believe in the angry Nicoletta who came to Rome only because her grandparents asked her to and who was determined to tell Olga's big secret to Lorenzo, than it was to believe in the Nicoletta who just...let it all go, smiled, and forgave her mother. In a situation like Nicoletta's, I kind of think a bit of immaturity is justified. As nice as it was for her, getting to know her mother and even coming to understand her a bit, that didn't change the fact that she had to be raised by her grandparents because her mother decided her career and the man she'd fallen in love with were both more important than her own daughter.

I also didn't quite find it believable that anyone who knew Lorenzo would really think he'd reject Olga just for being a divorcee with a young daughter. The impression I had of Lorenzo was of a laid-back man who preferred it when the people he cared for were happy. Granted, it's possible he might have been a bit more prone to fiery emotions when he was younger, but the one flashback featuring him as a younger man indicated that that probably wasn't the case. I loved that flashback. Just a few sentences, and I could really picture big, gentle Lorenzo befriending his eccentric, taciturn older brother over a period of time. If I have the chronology right, only a few years later, Lorenzo met Olga. I thought the reason given for why Lorenzo said he wouldn't want to marry a divorcee with a child was a bit of a stretch, but I suppose I can believe that a woman in love might let fear of losing that love prompt her to do selfish things.

My first reading had me cheering when I reached the (near) end of the volume and found out how things worked out for Nicoletta and Olga. I loved that Ono included a few pages showing Nicoletta, Olga, Lorenzo, and the restaurant staff at some point after the events of the main story - it was like getting to see how good friends were doing.

My second reading allowed me to see all kinds of little details I'd probably noticed in my first reading but hadn't really paid as much attention to. I noticed Olga's attempts to protect Nicoletta, when Nicoletta was still not completely aware of the issues between Gabriella and Claudio. I noticed how Gigi hovered around Nicoletta in several scenes - during my first reading, I had no way of knowing that there might be reasons beyond "Gigi's a bit strange" for him to be doing any of that. I certainly had a better handle of all the restaurant staff, who they were, and their various personality traits. Although I had noticed during my first reading that the inside flap of the cover included a list of all the restaurant staff and a bit of info about each of them, I didn't have any of that information really internalized until my second reading.

One of the things that struck me when I was rereading the volume was how much more human and fragile some of the characters seemed. Claudio, in particular. From what little readers are shown of his ex-wife, it seems she's a very busy, career-minded woman. I could see why things hadn't worked out between her and Claudio. Claudio, I think, is geared to do better in a slower, more gently-paced world. He seems at his best when he's relaxed and chatting with Nicoletta.

Then there was Olga, who I think only had Gabriella as a confidante. When she was worried about Nicoletta, the only person she could talk to was Gabriella, even when Gabriella was part of the reason why Olga was worried. As far as Olga knew, Lorenzo and the restaurant staff didn't know Nicoletta was her daughter, so she really had no one else to turn to. In my first reading of the manga, I could imagine Olga shopping for gifts as a way to reconnect with her daughter. In my second reading, I could imagine that same shopping doubling as a way for her to burn off nervous energy built up from being unable to confide her biggest secret to most of the people in her life.

True, Nicoletta had been Olga's secret for 15 years before Nicoletta came to Rome, but it wasn't until Nicoletta arrived and started working at the restaurant that she became a secret Olga had to actively keep. The moment when Olga is looking at the birthday cake Nicoletta baked for her, just before she decides what she's finally going to do about Nicoletta, actually made my throat close up and brought tears to my eyes. This didn't happen during my first reading of the volume - apparently it took a second reading for the emotion of this moment to build up inside me to that point.

My stronger emotional reactions during my second reading didn't stop there - the scenes with Nicoletta and Olga in the little "Holiday Lunch" after story had more of a punch for me, too. It's the first time in the entire volume that you get to see Olga and Nicoletta doing an activity together, bickering about it like the mother and daughter they are, and being able to be open about it. I think what got to me there was the single panel, during their argument, showing Lorenzo smiling and reading a newspaper. It's just an ordinary thing, but it's a scene that couldn't have happened just a few pages earlier.

Even after my second reading, I didn't finish this manga and find myself wishing I could own it, the way I felt after finishing the four volumes of Antique Bakery. However, I do want to read Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso - I ended up liking the characters in this story so much that the idea of getting to find out more about them in other volumes makes me really happy.

Sorry for the less-than-stellar read-alikes/watch-alikes list. Since I don't usually read stuff like Ristorante Paradiso, it was hard for me to come up with a list of similar titles. My usual resources didn't help me out much.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Antique Bakery (manga) by Fumi Yoshinaga; Antique Bakery (anime TV series) - Although I think Antique Bakery has more drama than Ristorante Paradiso, and Antique Bakery is a prettier manga that lingers more over visual details, this is the series I kept thinking of when I read Ristorante Paradiso. It's a similarly slow-paced, slice-of-life story that also takes place in a European-style business. In this case, the focus is on the employees of a small gourmet bakery and cafe - what their lives are like in the bakery, the events in their lives that brought them to the bakery, and the things going on in their personal lives in the present. I wrote several gushing blog posts about the four manga volumes, but I don't recommend reading those until after you've read the series - as part of my gushing, I also included tons of spoilers. I do highly recommend this series. It's wonderful. The anime is currently available in the US as a pre-order. I've never seen it and don't know how it compares in the manga.
  • Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - This is another slow-paced series - perhaps a bit of a stretch as a recommendation, but I'd say give it a chance if you have the opportunity. It's a historical series set in England in the late 19th century. It focuses on Emma, a young maid, and William, a member of the gentry. The two of them fall in love, despite their class differences. The manga is absolutely lovely, encouraging readers to enjoy the mainly historical details Mori includes in her art. I drove myself happily batty trying to pick apart minute details in characters' expressions and body language in order read between the lines of conversations and scenes, and the artwork is good enough that it doesn't suffer from this kind of close attention. The anime, too, is pretty good and may actually be more accessible and affordable than the manga right now.
  • Ouran High School Host Club (manga) by Bisco Hatori; Ouran High School Host Club (anime TV series) - If what grabbed you the most was the idea of a restaurant that attracts customers as much for its staff as its food, you might like this series (which resembles Ristorante Paradiso in almost no other way). The series takes place at an elite high school with students that are mostly from very wealthy and influential families. Only one student is an exception, and that student finds themselves in enormous debt after breaking a vase belonging to the Ouran High School Host Club, a club composed of good-looking Ouran High School boys who cater to the school's wealthy and bored female population. The scholarship student is forced to become a member of the host club in order to pay for the broken vase, and it's not until later that all the club members realize that this student is actually a girl. It's a cute, funny series.

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