Umami ~ by Laia Jufresa (NOTES)

Umami (/uˈmɑːmi/), or savory taste, is one of the five basic tastes (together with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). It has been described as brothy or meaty.   (Think soy sauce or parmesan cheese.)

by Laia Jufresa
2016 / 240 pages
read by Karina Fernandez 7h 13m
rating –
translated by Sophie Hughes
(read and listened) 

A map of  the little 5-unit  housing complex, Belldrop Mews,  where the story mainly takes place.   It’s located in or near Mexico City.   Each home  in the complex has an occupant or family as well as a taste.   There is a bell in the center which gives the mews its name.


Chapter 1 –  2004

“Mews is a primarily British term formerly describing a row of stables, usually with carriage houses below and living quarters above, built around a paved yard or court, or along a street, behind large city houses, such as those of London, during the 17th and 18th centuries.”

Ana Perez-Walker,  age 13? and the eldest child,  is the 1st person narrator.  Her family lives in the Sour House.

The Perez-Walker family moved from Mexico City to Belldrop Mews –   a small housing space outside of the city.   One of their  children is dead,  drowned.  Grief is a huge theme.

The mother of the Perez-Walker family is Linda – a US ex-pat- ex-hippie,  grieving her daughter.  She is or was a cellist with the National Symphony.  She’s been in Mexico for 20 years.

The father  is Victor  Perez a  quiet man.  He loves his wife and children.

Ana –  age 13 in this chapter.

Theo – is a brother in Michigan.

Olmou is another brother in Michigan.

Luz – is the youngest,  a sister who, although she knew how to swim,  died  by drowning one summer.

Pina is Ana’s best friend who is helping her start a garden.  Pina lives in Umami with her father.

The Perez-Walkers live in Sweet and rent salty for their professional life.

(In Spanish the father’s name is the first part of the last name and the mother’s name is the last name.  The hyphen is more often used in US names where the father’s name is used last.)

Chapter 2 –   2003 –
The point of view is that of the 19-year old Marina Mendoza.  She’s  an artist who lied to get moved into the Bitter House at Belldrop Mews because she liked the white interior.     She  invents color names –  Whomise –  a kind of white,  redsentful – militant,  military -.   She also tends toward the anorexic.  Marina got quite ill one time and her mother came to intervene – she now takes medicine and is in therapy.

She babysits the Perez-Walker children and she and Linda are friends – actually ,  Marina has an infatuation with Linda – has put her on a pedestal for something – renounced the”product mentality.”  “I devote myself to the music now,  not the orchestra.”

Marina lives in Bitter.

Chapter 3 –  2002
This is another 1st person narrator,  Doctor Alfonso Semietel.    Doctor Alfonso Semitiel is a widowed academic of upper middle age.  His wife, Noelia Vargas Vargas,   died of cancer the year before.  He still grieves.   He is friends with Linda Perez-Walker because of shared grief.

Thanks to a university supplied laptop he’s new to the internet and is supposed to use the laptop for research but he is also on sabbatical.

He’s not too sure about his new neighbor,  the young artist,   but …   He remembers Noelia –  a cardiologist, young, gorgeous, naive, scatterbrained, a vegetarian for awhile,  smoked sometimes,  very intelligent and successful.   They had no children.

He likes Ana Perez-Walker,  Linda’s eldest daughter age about 11 here.  Noelia loved them all.   Linda taught Noelia how to tie a turban.  (And I get teary?)    Now they meet at The Mustard Mug.   They are both unemployed due to death of loved ones.   They talk of the past or operas or food.

And another theme – families or  lack of families,  memory,  loss.

I think he lives in the Sour cottage.

Chapter 4 –  2001
The 5-year old Luz, another 1st person narrator,  is crawling around under the trees at Grandma Emma’s house in the United States.  She’s looking for mushrooms with her mother and grandma.   Luz and her family are visiting.   I suppose this is the summer of Luz’s death because she’s the right age and it’s the right place.   Pina is Ana’s friend – Ana is 10.  (Pina is everywhere?)

Chapter 5 – 2000
On vacation somewhere with a 3rd person omniscient narrator.    Pina and Ana are investigating how babies are made. They are supposed to be watching Luz.  The girls continue to explore each other while Luz talks to the empty swing she’s pushing.  Linda comes to get them as they have to return to Mexico City.


Chapter 6 – 2004
This is back to the frame story – Ana, at  age 13 or 14,  is at home at the Belldrop Mews after the death of Luz.  Her mother,  Linda, is distraught by her music and the death of Luz.   (Question –  who are “The Girls?”  They belong to Alf as he takes “The Girls” out in  Chapter 3.  Now they’re in a stroller. – I suspect they’re potted plants.)   This chapter is mostly about Ana’s reading.

Daniel/Daniella and baby girl live in a house just outside the mews – Ana sometimes “babysits” the unnamed girl and looks through their books.   Pina also lives in the mews.
Marina is now 21, single.   Ana recites Rossetti poetry.

Ana gets a hammer from Marina and then goes to Alf’s house,  the landlord.  Her mother reads without turning pages –  they are forever almost 6.

Chapter 7 –  2003
Marina and her anorexia,  food,  therapy,  Her friend Chihuahua helps her with electronics –  a woman comes to visit.

Chapter 8 – 2002
Alf and his memories of Noelia Ana and Pina visit – remembering Linda and talking to her in the Mustard Bar.   Her life and death.  They plant things.   His writing.  no children but they get “The Girls”  and he leaves directions for their care after his death.  He gives some things away.

Chapter 9 – 2001
Luz crawling around at by the pond,  she’s been left alone,  a bit afraid of the trees,  talk about sewage ponds,  and she tries to “camuflash” (hide)   This is seriously building tension.

Chapter 10 – 2000
Pina’s point of view –  she is alone this summer her mother has taken her to somewhere on vacation.   She is missing Ana and probably her dad.    She plays games with the other kids but she’s missing something –  this chapter is very Freudian – ? –  symbolic with bananas and hand-holding.

Chapter 11 – 2004
Ana, as first person, is missing Luz on the 3rd anniversary of her death.   Her dad explains some stuff to her – she thinks of what life would be like if Luz were there.  Linda and Marina have a disagreement and don’t speak –  (I suspect Marina told Linda to get over it.)

Ana and Pina and Dad buy plants and Pina sells one.  Won’t talk about her mom (“Chela”).  They talk about the garden which is coming along.   Ana remembers Luz.

Chapter 12 – 2003
Marina’s point of view – The woman from Part 2 comes into Marina’s house –  it turns out to be Chela – Pina’s mother.  They talk about stuff including art and smoke pot.  Marina thinks of her problem with food.  Chela sees Marina’s painting of Alf but won’t go to Pina’s/Beto’s house.  Pina is “”absurdly” beautiful.   Then Chela fixes some crepes from Marina’s almost bare kitchen.  Marina watches the cooking crepes.  Marina’s dad is abusive and she hasn’t seen him for about a year and a half.

Chapter 13 – 2002
Alf as first person remembering Noelia and drawing and umami –  Alf wrote about umami in 1985 – there is a fair amount of academic stuff here and then the map and description of the Mews houses and their occupants.   He likes writing.   –  Masks –

The diagram here is called “Map of the Tongue” and it looks like a tongue with the taste-buds mapped out and it’s really almost a map of the Belldrop Mews.

Why did they not have children? –  They tried hard but … it was “a race against menopause.”   No artificial means but used time schedules and superstitions – fertility figurines.  To no avail.  He grieves.  THinks about food – wonders if there were some way to make “The Girls” eat.

The academy is the place where the middle classes puff themselves up with their Sunday-best words and endorse the myth that knowledge is power. Load of boloney! Knowledge debilitates. Knowledge inflates the ego and starves ingenuity. To know is to use the body less and less; to live a sedentary existence. Knowledge makes you fat!
(page 196)

Kikunae Ikeda  –

Chapter 14 -2001
Luz as first person at Grandma Emma’s –  she’s cute and smart.   We now figure out why Pina is there with Luz and Ana.   It’s simply a continuation of the day (maybe out of chronological order) Luz drowned.  We really get to know Luz.

But we’re also wondering why Luz drowned – at what point – what happened to a girl who knew full well how to swim that she drowned?

Chapter 15 –  2000 –
Pena’s point of view – she and both of her parents are going somewhere and the camper is packed.   Her mother buys a bathtub she sees on a rooftop – her father is furious – Pena was scared the family would keep her mother.

Chapter 16 – 2004 –
Ana as first person –  she is planting corn and beans and squash in a certain order.  She also plants tomatoes and has sent off for an heirloom variety.    She and Pina gossip about the shoes at Daniel’s,  “Men are scum,”  says Pina.   Alf walks The Girls.   They talk plants –  “Three Sisters are corn, bean and squash.

Did Pina’s mom take Luz/Ana’s dog?    What did Marina and Linda fight about? –

Pina works at her gardens,  thinks about her brothers,  reads.  Pi comes over with her father and they remember selling stuff as kids –  Pina suggests a “launch party” and a pay as you go for the garden – “donations” per dad.  Pina and Ana talk.  –   They braid their hair.  There is a celebration that Pina and her mom have reconciled with the trip to Mexico.   The letter her mom had left when she deserted only said,  “Pina, I only ask that you finish high school.”

Linda looks at Ana’s plants at night.

Chapter17- 2003
Marina’s point of view –  eating the crepes with Chela and thinking of happy things – like colors and names for Marina.  For Chela it’s her hotel and she goes on about it.  Marina is turned off –  Chela is 39 years old and has a 12-year old child.  Marina’s mother is a bit cool and submissive but … and as they smoke some pot she realizes she misses her dad, too.

Chapter 18 – 2002
Alf and Noelia get The Girls,  Maria and Clara,  Maria is made so realistic she can breathe by way of a “brida.”    Then Noelia is diagnosed with cancer.   She accepts chemo and anti-depressants.   Alf also takes them and has recently doubled the dose.   Alf doesn’t really understand Noelia and The Girls and Noelia doesn’t understand the other mothers.  But lately Alf has been feeling better around The Girls and their room – he started seeing them as The Girls – not as the dolls.     He is mistaken for being a grandfather taking his grandchildren out for walks.   – And one day he realizes he is “a ridiculous old man.”   – He just wants something to love –  “something that won’t die on him.”

Amaranth – heavy umami flavor –  “There’s no doubting the tremendous power of self-deception.”

Chapter 19 – 2001

With first-person Luz and Grandma Emma – tells highly imaginative stories about Linda (who is Emma’s step-daughter.    The story is of Linda turning into a fish.  Luz thinks about turning into a fish if she stays under the water.  She tells her mother –


The houses:  (These are mapped and narrated in Part III,  2002 as well as in a map at the beginning of the book.)

Bitter – Marina –
Sour  –   Beto & daughter, Pina
Sweet  –  the music school of Perez-Walker
Salty –  Perez-Walker family
Umami – Alf – Noele –


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