by Natsume Ono
published by Viz; $12.99 US
When I heard about the premise of this restaurant-set manga, I expected that I’d enjoy it, but unfortunately, it’s one of the rare missteps of the Viz Signature line for me.
Nicoletta was abandoned at a young age by her mother, who went off to marry a man who didn’t want children. Now, Nicoletta has come to Rome to confront her and tell him the truth. Her unknowing stepfather owns a restaurant staffed entirely by older men in glasses. When one, Claudio, is kind to her, she wonders whether she’s in love with him. Things are complicated by Nicoletta’s mother working and being friends with Claudio’s ex-wife.
NIcoletta is almost a non-entity as a protagonist. She doesn’t tell off her mother or reveal the secret to her husband, although I was rooting for her to. She just sits and watches and wonders about what love is. I found her drippy. When her mother continues treating her atrociously, she doesn’t even say anything, not even a token protest, instead just thinking to herself, “Everything always revolves around her needs.” Well, then do something about it!
Or at least, get on with your own life. Nicoletta gets internal monologue about wanting to find work she can be passionate about, and that’s part of her jealousy over her mother’s independent life, but then she winds up working in the kitchen because she’s got nothing better to do (and it keeps the manga going). What we’re told and what we’re shown doesn’t always match up.
Exhibit A in that area: Natsume Ono’s art style is definitely an acquired taste. I don’t object to it, but I did find it hard to process when we kept hearing about how handsome all these waiters were supposed to be. Mostly, they look to me like skulls. At times, they appear to be holding their heads back so they can look over their own chins. They’re always unpleasant-looking, which works when they’re fighting or tortured, but not so much when they’re supposed to be happy. Instead, at those times, they look insipid.
This is also one of those manga where we’re told everything we should think, instead of the author having faith in the reader to figure some things out based on what she’s shown. When Nicoletta is told she needs a restaurant reservation because the place is always crowded, she thinks to herself, “Must be popular.” We’re shown customers with strings of hearts coming off of them, and she thinks, “they’re all drooling over the staff.” We’re reminded several times how she’s never before felt this way about an older man. Claudio is named after a saint, so there’s a full-page panel where Nicoletta tells him, “You really are like a saint.”
I also wondered why we saw no followup to Nicoletta throwing herself (literally) on Claudio one night. He awkwardly holds her off until they’re interrupted, but afterwards, they ignore it and don’t speak of it. Instead, they bond over how they were both abandoned by working women, in a conversation where they spell out their feelings in excruciating detail. I would think the clumsy physical interaction would be more worthy of mention, if only to apologize or figure out if she was still interested. (I won’t get into the psychological implications of a woman who lost her parents seeking a relationship with such an older man.)
This had such potential — young woman finding love with an older, considerate man in a restaurant — but the pieces never came together the way they should, and the character development was jumpy and artificial. Also, not enough mention of food to take advantage of the setting. If this was a series, I’d assume that character growth would come in future volumes, but it’s a stand-alone, although the characters reappear in the three volumes of Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso, starting from Viz in July, which explores the prior lives of the waiters. (The publisher provided a review copy.)