First off, let’s address the elephant—or perhaps in this case, the elephant garlic—in the room: The Lemon is not “The Anthony Bourdain Story.”
Yes, it opens with a chef/food writer/TV host’s on-location death by suicide, which is discovered by his longtime best friend (also a famous chef). And while there are a few other passing similarities to Bourdain’s sudden and unexpected exit, The Lemon reads more like a bawdy Judd-Apatow-meets-Carl-Hiaasen romp than a roman a clef in the manner of Joe Klein’s Primary Colors.
Nothing in The Lemon is quite as it seems, starting with the author. S.E. Boyd is the nom de plume of a trio that includes James Beard Award-winning food writer Kevin Alexander, journalist Joe Keohane and book editor Alessandra Lusardi. It’s evident that they are comfortable moving about in high-end foodie and media circles, given their facility with dropping real-life names into the mix, from The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik to author Malcolm Gladwell. Even Bourdain himself makes a cameo, as if to ensure he is not mistaken for the deceased fictional chef, John Doe.
Other names have been changed to protect the innocent (or at least to avoid legal consequences). Chef Paolo Cabrini stands in admirably for Bourdain’s restaurateur friend Éric Ripert, T. Kendall Sun-Ramirez is surely the doppelganger of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (The Food Lab), and Mark Fowler of the TV show “Top of the Morning” bears more than a passing resemblance to deposed “Today” host Matt Lauer.
But the four most significant names to note are Nia Greene, John’s longtime producing partner and agent; Paolo Cabrini, John’s aforementioned celebrity chef pal; Katie Horatio, aspiring journalist; and Charlie McCree, a cross between the Lucky Charms leprechaun and the demon spawn of Chucky. They, and their supporting cast, wrestle among themselves to control the narrative surrounding John’s death, because there’s a potential payoff in the post-Doe media tableau.
The dialogue crackles, the zip line plot slings the reader from one hilariously fraught incident to the next, and the conclusion is as emotionally satisfying as ever an author—or three—could have concocted. Like a perfectly seared slice of foie gras with a dollop of lingonberry jam on an artisanal toast point, The Lemon simply cannot be put down, and when you’ve finished it, you’ll want more.