Coffee Reading is a first novel by Eleni Karipidis that is centred on the ancient practice of predicting the future by examining the mud left at the bottom of a Greek coffee cup. After the coffee is drunk, the cup is turned over and the lines, blots and images are formed on the sides and the bottom. The coffee reader, a person who has the gift of interpreting them can foretell the future. The craft, as Ms Karipidis calls it, is well known in Greece but I am not sure how many non-Greeks are aware of it or practice it in North America.
The novel has three interwoven plot lines each narrated in the first person by three story tellers. Cassie, the first, is a fifteen-year-old who acquires the gist of coffee reading from her grandmother and she examines the coffee cup of Penelope. We meet her several times during the story.
Penelope is a beautiful girl, gifted with blessed hands in the making of pitas, who has ambitions beyond her peasant background. She consults coffee readers to learn about her future. She is waiting to find the right man but she is unsuccessful because she is very picky. Her coffee cup indicates that she will go on a long journey and her path is clear.
Penelope comes from an unpleasantly patriarchal family that runs an orchard. She has an uncouth father and brothers, Aris and Apollo, and wants to get out of that milieu. She visits the mysterious coffee reader, Madame Vivi, at her mansion on top of a hill. She predicts that Penelope will receive a visitor but can give few other details. Madame Vivi has predicted better things for Penelope and even though her mother warns her against relying too much on a coffee cup reader, Penelope is convinced that she is made for a life much better than farm living.
The frustrated and ambitious Penelope puts a note on a peach branch that reads: “American husband wanted” and gives her complete address. An American shows up at her house, but he is rejected by her family. Candidates for her hand come to her house but only one of them, Alexander or Mr. Blue Eyes, stands out. The two are attracted to each other.
Madame Vivi reads Penelope’s coffee and tells her that Alexander is no good. Penelope sees him as her ticket to a good life. It looks like Penelope will marry Alexander. Her father who supplements his income as a tailor, is busy making a suit for Alexander’s father with wads of money sewn in the lining. What he is doing is criminal but only if one gets caught, he surmises. In any event Penelope and Alexander go to the chapel to get married. Spoiler alert. You may see signs of the movie The Graduate, perhaps in reverse, but I will say no more.
The story telling is interspersed among the three tellers. The third plot strand is narrated by Lysander. He is a disaffected young man living in Greece in 1967 under the harsh dictatorship of the Junta (which forms a backdrop for the story) with his friends Socrates and Pericles. The three want to leave Greece and go somewhere. But where? One of them has an uncle in Canada and they reach for a globe to locate Canada and Toronto and thus choose it as their destination.
Before they leave, the three friends make their way to Madame Vivi’s mansion to have their coffee read. On the way they see a beautiful girl who looks like a forest nymph. Her handkerchief gets snagged by a tree branch and Lysander manages to grab it. It has the letter P embroidered on it. On reading Lysander’s coffee Madame Vivi sees the letter P in his cup.
As foretold by Cassie, Lysander, Pericles and Socrates do arrive in Toronto with $5 among them. Lysander stays for 10 disastrous months there before returning to Greece.
That is the skeleton around which Ms Karipidis constructs her story. If there is a love story between Penelope and Lysander, it is entirely inchoate. That plot strand and many others are left dangling in the wind. What happened at the marriage chapel? What is happening to Penelope? Very little in the novel complies with the basic idea of having a beginning, a middle and an end. Perhaps Ms Karipidis dangles plot lines in front of us to whet our appetite for more development in future volumes. Perhaps.
As for the three young men, we know almost nothing about them except that they have already served in the Greek army and we are forced to deduce that they may not be educated at all or are perhaps not very bright. They never heard of Canada even though one of the has an uncle there? Character development is kept to a minimum.
They address each other as Ly, Soc and Perry. Penelope becomes Penny. It may be appropriate and perhaps inevitable for people in Canada to use such short forms but shortening Lysander to Ly in Greece by people who speak no English? Unlikely.
There are many people who believe in fortune telling, astrology, tea leaves reading, seances and coffee reading. Ms Karipidis has stated that she has the gift of coffee reading but her views may be considered irrelevant in the work of fiction that she has written. Her characters believe in the craft assiduously.
I have gleaned a few fascinating facts about the author from the internet. She was a teacher for the York Region Bord of Education for twenty years. She was awarded 1st Prize at the Karolos Koon Theatre Academy in Athens in 1992 and studied at the University of Windsor, Concordia University and Ryerson University among other institutions.
For the rest, you will have to read her book.
by Eleni Karipidis
137 pp. ISBN 9798474936870