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Once Upon a Time in Rio

A Novel

About The Book

From well-known Brazilian playwright Francisco Azevedo, a heartwarming debut novel about three generations of a family whose kitchen contains the secret ingredient for happiness—sure to appeal to fans of Like Water for Chocolate.

Once upon a time there was some rice. Rice planted in the earth, fallen from the sky, and gathered up from the stone. Rice that doesn’t spoil, it came from far away, by ship with three exuberant young people filled with dreams…

Once Upon a Time in Rio is a spellbinding family saga beginning with José Custódio and Maria Romana and their search for a prosperous future. As newlyweds, José and Maria immigrated to Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century, accompanied by a special gift. During the dinner preparations to celebrate their centenary wedding anniversary, their eldest son Antonio, already a grandfather, looks back at the lives of his parents, his aunt, his brothers, their children and grandchildren, as well as his own.

Antonio knows that family is a difficult dish to get right and that happiness must be cooked up day by day; however, what separates his family from any other is its possession of a secret ingredient for happiness: the sack of magical rice given to his parents on their wedding day. With the help of the rice, whose magic is as old as fire and time, Antonio’s family has been guided through the most trying of life’s tribulations.

Lyrically written, Once Upon a Time in Rio bares the fragile yet strong nature of the human spirit and with great insight captures the solace provided by loved ones in times of need. Already an international bestseller, this is a beautifully told tale about the wisdom of past generations and the inextricable ties of family.


Me, here on the estate. Me, here in the kitchen, just past four in the morning. Isabel’s still asleep, and the sun is taking its time. Me here, an old man, eighty-eight. To the younger generation, the Eternal Grandfather, with no beginning or end, who came into the world with that wrinkled face. Me here in a white apron, chopping green herbs. I’m preparing lunch for the family. Will my strength hold out? 88: two vertical infinities. It’s a good age. And it will be a fine party. I’ve had plenty of practice.

Aunt Palma taught me to cook when I was young. Where has she gone now? Sometimes she doesn’t show up for quite a while. Sometimes I see her wandering the house with Mom and Dad and I don’t even need my glasses. They arrive at different ages, happy or worried, talkative or silent. It depends on the day, on what time I see them. Imagination? Senility? I lose myself. Do I? I catch myself having conversations with the boy who used to be me. Or writing out loud to myself. I talk to those dear to me who now are far away in time and space. Sometimes I’m afraid, I whistle in the dark. Then ­suddenly light. A movie! I project stories to myself. I see my siblings again in their childhood, quite clearly, jumping all over one another, running back and forth and rolling around each other like little puppies. I see my Isabel again, in love. I see my children again, when they were still close and they were mine. Vivid memories in every sense: taste, smell, sound, sight, and touch. I keep moving forward. Forward to the now—which I love!—and then to wherever it is my nose happens to be pointing and my eyesight reaches and beyond, where nothing can go but hope. I am past, present, future—three separate people united in one, the mystery of the Earthly Trinity. I’m confiding in you while you keep me company now, reading my thoughts.

An old man misses his mom and dad. It’s all been so long! An old man wants to be held, wants to be fed with a spoon that comes from far away with the sound of a little airplane, wants—once he’s had his bath—to be put to bed, comforted with a clean sheet and soft pillow. A familiar story, a lullaby, a goodnight kiss. The bedroom door left just a little open, with the hallway light on—that one reference point is always good. An old man feels the lack of a higher authority. Who will judge him with impartiality and wisdom? Who, better than he, will know, fairly, how best to examine the merits of the question? An old man’s a child with a different kind of energy. He’s no longer interested in running through the gardens, going up and down on the seesaw, back and forth on the swings. What he wants now is to race off into the sky, to release the creatures he has been collecting his whole life. All the creatures—wild and tame, useful and harmful. The heavy reptiles he still carries in his heart and the butterflies, fish, and little birds, all let loose up there! Aunt Palma used to say that an old man right at the moment of his death knows the most and least about himself. He is at once elephant and praying mantis. He is sequoia and wildflower, ocean and rain puddle, mountain range and grain of salt. She insisted that we know full well when the moment of that transformation occurs. The soul begins to give out all the sounds of nature: winds, waters, people’s footsteps on the gravel, blazing fire, crackling wood, varied breathing, and, all of a sudden, the quick beating of wings. There is the choir—the voices of animals. The old man’s soul growls, threateningly—the second movement of the concerto. The soul roars, howls, shouts, neighs, and moos. Then it buzzes, warbles, and twitters. The soul frees itself toward the infinite and then, yes, then—soprano, tenor, contralto, and bass—it sings the most beautiful aria of the most beautiful opera! As a child, I believed her piously. Later, as a man, I found it funny. Some time ago I began to believe her again.

It’s in the kitchen that I let loose, and release the animals. It’s in the kitchen that I travel without a passport, without a ticket, without an airport security search. The authorities want my fingerprints? They’re in the dough of the bread. They want my photo? I have several, head-on and in profile, with my parents and siblings and those who came later. Portraits that are spoken—out loud, the whole family talking at once. The riotous family. Holy family . . .

I need to concentrate. It’s vital. Why? Oh, what a question! Family is a difficult dish to get right. There are a lot of ingredients. Getting them all together is a problem—especially at Christmas and New Year. The quality of the pan hardly matters; making a family requires courage, devotion, and patience. It isn’t for everyone. The little tricks, the secrets, the unexpected. Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to give it all up. We prefer the discomfort of going on an empty stomach. Then there’s the laziness, the familiar lack of imagination about what we’re going to eat and that lack of appetite. But life—a green olive on a cocktail toothpick—always finds a way to excite us and reawaken that appetite. Time sets the table, determines the number of chairs and their places. And suddenly, like a miracle, the family is served. So-and-so, she turns out to be the smartest one of all. Such-and-such is done perfectly, he’s the most jokey and the most communicative, everyone agrees. And what’s-his-name—who’d have thought it?—he didn’t rise, he hardened, withered before his time. This one is the fattest, the most generous, copious, abundant. That one, he’s the one who surprised everyone and went off to live far away. She’s the most in love. And her, the most consistent.

And you? Yes, you, you who are reading my thoughts and who have come here to keep me company. How did you come out in the family album? The most practical and objective? The most sentimental? The most obliging? The one who never wanted to have anything to do with work? Whoever you are, don’t just sit there complaining about comparative degrees or types. Gather up all those affinities and dislikes that are parts of your life. There’s no hurry. I’ll wait. Are they there? All of them? Excellent. Now put on your apron, pick up a chopping board, the sharpest knife, and take precautions. Soon you, too, will be reeking of garlic and onion. Don’t be embarrassed if you cry. Family is a moving kind of dish. And we do cry. With joy or rage or sadness.

First caution: Exotic seasonings alter the taste of kinship. But if mixed with care, these spices—which almost always come from Africa and from the East and which seem strange to our palate—will make a family much more brightly colored, interesting, and flavorsome.

Pay close attention, too, to weights and measures. A pinch too much of this or that, and it’s all over, the whole thing’s a complete disaster. Family is the most sensitive of dishes. Everything has to be very carefully weighed out, well measured. And another thing: You need a good hand, need to be a professional. Especially at the moment when you decide to stir the pot. Knowing how to stir the pot is a real art. A good friend of mine told me she spoiled the recipe for her whole family just because she stirred the pot at the wrong time.

The worst thing is, there are still people who believe in the recipe for a perfect family. Nonsense. Complete fantasy. There’s no such thing as a “Family Carbonara,” or “Family à la Belle Meunière,” “Family Marinara,” or “Family à la Cabidela”—blood is particularly vital for the preparation of this last delicacy. Family is affinity, it’s always à la maison—done in the house style. And every house likes to prepare a family in its own way.

There are families that are sweet. Others, slightly bitter. Still others, extremely spicy. There are also those that taste of nothing at all—so these are a kind of “Diet Family,” which you tolerate just in order to preserve your figure. Whatever it’s like, family is a dish that should always be served hot, extremely hot. A cold family is unbearable, impossible to swallow.

There are, for example, families that take a lot of time to get ready. Those recipes full of recommendations for doing it that way or this—what a pain! Others, meanwhile, just happen all of a sudden, from one hour to the next, through an uncontrollable physical attraction—almost always at night. You wake up one morning, full of the joys of life, and when you look again you find the family’s already all done. Which is why it’s also good to know the right time to turn down the heat. I’ve seen whole families ruined because the flame’s been turned up too high.

So anyway, the recipe for a family isn’t something you copy, it’s something you invent. People learn gradually, improvising and passing on what they learn from one day to the next. We pick up a tip here, from someone who knows and is willing to share, another there that was left on a scrap of paper. A lot of things are lost in memory. Especially in the memory of an old man, already a bit senile, like me. What this veteran cook can tell you is that, even if it’s not very appealing, even if it doesn’t taste too good, family is a dish that you have to try and that you really ought to eat. If you can taste it, taste it. Don’t pay any attention to labels. Dip the bread in that bit of sauce that’s left in the dish or pan or bowl. Enjoy it as much as you can. Family is a dish that, once completed, can never again be repeated.

About The Author

Photograph by Paula Johas

Francisco Azevedo is a world-renowned scriptwriter, playwright, and poet and was a finalist for the Sao Paulo Prize in literature. Once Upon a Time in Rio is Azevedo’s debut novel. He lives in Brazil.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 24, 2014)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451695571

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“This novel evokes the flavors of Brazil and will be...appreciated by readers interested in South American fiction.”

– Booklist, Print review

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