Looking for something to cozy up with during the chilly Halloween weekend? This week I’m scaring up three books of varying tone…one explores the effects of divorce on a fractured family, the second is lighter, a bit screw-ball if you will. The third, a non-fiction account of opening a restaurant in the most competitive city in the world.
If you’re following along, please post your thoughts and comments about the titles you’ve read. Remember, this is a two-way street, so if you have a recommendation, please share!!
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
It seems obvious that the novelist draws from her own real-life experiences after growing up in a family of divorce because this story is so heart-wrenching in its honesty. Handsome Bert Cousins crashes Fix Keating’s daughter’s christening party, but he’s got a big bottle of gin on a sweltering day and instantly endears himself to the crowd, especially Fix’s wife Beverly, who will soon leave Fix for this charming stranger. Only we know that Bert is there escaping the responsibilities of his own cloying family (red flag, Bev!). These two are actually more of an after-thought as the story progresses, spanning five decades as the six step siblings are thrown together each summer in Virginia. Basically neglected by an overwhelmed Beverly, the children run wild through their formative years, culminating in a tragic event that will haunt each of them into adulthood. When a washed up novelist gets wind of their grim story, he turns it into a thinly veiled bestseller, forcing the family to revisit their painful past. Beautifully written, this one is a heart-breaker.
By the way…While Ann Patchett is well-known novelist, I’ve found fellow fans have not read her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her 20-year friendship with writer Lucy Grealy, a truly fascinating and troubled woman.
Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple
No one does adorably flawed and kooky like Maria Semple. Eleanor Flood wakes each day resolving that today will be different, she’ll be a devoted, organized, loving wife, mother and friend. She will basically be…less of a mess. Oh well, maybe tomorrow, because in this day-in-the-life tale, she will have to navigate the politics of her child’s private school, find her missing husband, sit through an awkward encounter with a former employee and most notably, face her feelings about her estranged sister and her nemesis/brother-in-law, Bucky. All of this happening with her wise and judgemental eight-year-old son, Timby, in tow. Perhaps the one day setting is why this novel feels a little ‘all over the place’ in terms of time-line and character introduction, however, said characters are fun and quirky and the overall story is a hoot. As good as her previous novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? No, but that’s a tall order and this one certainly has its charms.
Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner
At the end of this non-fiction story I thought, “Who in their right mind would open a restaurant in New York City?” But that is exactly what makes this journey so compelling. Apparently, a chef with any real aspirations needs to open their own restaurant by the age of 30 or consider themselves a has-been, so Jonah Miller set his goal for age 25. It’s easy to see why journalist Stabiner chose Miller as her subject, as a native New Yorker, he started cooking as a boy and was smart enough as a teen to figure out that if he worked for free in high-end kitchens during the summer he’d be ahead of the game when he graduated culinary school. At one point in his youth, Miller took dinner order from tenants in his apartment building and delivered his cuisine to neighbors during the week. But even with promising cred, opening Huertas, a Basque-inspired restaurant (Spanish, I had to look it up) on the lower east side of Manhattan is no walk in Central Park. Stabiner, a fly on the wall through the entire process, starting with finding the right space through opening day and beyond, keeps the story moving at a quick clip, revealing the mountain of risks and hassles, including the quagmire that is obtaining a liquor license, the pros and cons of social media and waiting in vain for a celebrated critic. Behind the scenes in the frantic kitchen are downright suspenseful…foodies, this one’s for you.
By the way…If back stage kitchens are your cup of coffee, you must read Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton’s excellent account of opening Prune in NYC. One of my favorites from 2011.