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the widow, the stranger, and eternity

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

The fortune of my life affords me tons of happiness. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes—and only sometimes, mind you—being fully aware of my happiness backfires, and I become acutely aware of all its opposites. I get a huge dose of dread (this is going to end) and panic (how can I live when this ends) and fear, fear, fear. Oh, and obviously, a healthy bit of paranoia. I have a husband who rides a bike to work in all sorts of weather along a road packed with distracted rush-hour drivers. Every day he comes home is a miracle. When I imagine a day that he doesn’t, the after-effects of even this hypothetical situation stay with me for longer than I like to admit. So when I picked up Before Ever After and learned that the main character’s husband was going to die, I tried not to get too attached to him. Samantha Sotto, the author, had other plans for me.

Widowhood is not treating Shelley kindly; she cannot seem to make significant strides toward rejoining the world. But five years after her husband Max died in the terror bombings in Lisbon, a stranger visits her—a stranger who looks so strikingly similar to Max that she cannot send him away. The stranger, an Italian named Paolo, tells Shelley that he’s seen evidence that Max is alive, making his legendary baked eggs and cheese in a tiny restaurant on an island in the Philippines. Even more unbelievable: Paolo believes that Max is his grandfather. Paolo presents photos showing Max from thirty years ago, looking the same as he did the last time Shelley set eyes on him. (Sotto, a Doctor Who fan, evokes the occasional inquisitive mind that finds photos of The Doctor at various points in history, never aging, always observing.) How could Max, who shared with Shelley such a beautiful and all-consuming love, stay away from his despondent wife for so long? Paolo persuades Shelley to fly with him to the Philippines to get the answers for herself. 

During the long flight to the other side of the world, Shelley tells Paolo about The Slight Detour, the guided tour through various destinations in Europe where she first met Max. At each stop along The Slight Detour Max tells a story set in the immediate surroundings and pertaining to a particular family tree. The tour begins in Paris with the death of Isabelle, who gave her life in 1871 to protect a child during the brief and turbulent rule of the Paris Commune. Slowly, Shelley is drawn into the evocative tales of Isabelle’s family, moving backward through time at every successive stop on the tour. And at each stop, Shelley and Max grow closer together. 

One of the great joys of

Before Ever After

is the privilege of watching Shelley break down every powerfully commitmentphobic instinct in exchange for a love that is moving to read about, one that occasionally veers into the treacly but overall remains compelling. Once she breaks those instincts down, though, she gives all of herself, so it’s all the more heartbreaking to think that Paolo might be right, that Max might have voluntarily stayed away. The mystery of the man Paolo found in the Philippines is unraveled slowly, carefully, through millennia, and it is a mark of Sotto’s skill that the many time threads (extending from Isabelle’s sacrifice to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, to the Emmental Valley in Switzerland in 1522, to the Schottenstift Monastery in Austria in 1210, to the Ljubljanica River in Slovenia in 958, to Altinum in what is now northern Italy in 568, and all the way back to Herculaneum at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79) are never confusing to follow. 

I can’t be objective about

Before Ever After

; I enjoyed the experience of reading such a genuinely dizzying ride through alternating moments of happiness and gut-wrenching loss. I have never read anything quite like it and did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The book’s narrative is almost tropically lush but leavened by the zippy dialogue of the characters. Though it has some elements in common with

The Time Traveler’s Wife

, I found it more logically told and less self-consciously literary. I think it’s a perfect book for the last half of summer, a book for reading outdoors with the ones you love not too far away and with a tomato salad in your near future. These transitory things are the most precious, no matter what DeBeers would like you to believe.

Before Ever After

 by Samantha Sotto

Crown Publishing—on sale August 2, 2011

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the healing power of steam

Many thanks to Gallery Books for the review copy (via Netgalley)

Many thanks to Gallery Books for the review copy (via Netgalley)

I’m going to tell you to read this book. And I know some of you are looking at that cover and thinking OH NO IT IS A FOOD BOOK. But you do not have to know, or care, how to chop an onion to understand The Kitchen Daughter. All you have to know is the way it feels to fear a future without everything you know and love.

Ginny is a young woman who’s lived with her parents all her life. They have protected her from the outside world, keeping her supplied with ingredients and cookbooks so that she can cook to her heart’s content. In her circumscribed world, her Asperger’s Syndrome is easy to manage. But then both parents die in an accident, and a post-funeral crowd descends on Ginny’s home. In her panic, she retreats to the kitchen, desperate to feel in control of something. She takes out her grandmother’s recipe for ribollita and crushes tomatoes, slices kale. She simmers and breathes deeply, and looks up to see the ghost of her grandmother in the kitchen. Somehow, she has developed the power to call up the dead when she cooks.

I have read a few books with autism-spectrum protagonists; some work for me better than others. Ginny works for me remarkably well. Although it is sometimes vexing to be trapped within her point of view, she always feels genuine. Her intelligence shines through her fear of new things, and yet she never achieves a premature insight. The book is about her struggle, and she struggles mightily. Ginny’s sister Amanda decides to sell the family home—the only place where Ginny feels safe—and to bring Ginny to live with her and her family. Ginny refuses to go. But since she’s never had to interact much with the outside world, she’s going to have to learn to fend for herself in ways that she’s never really considered before. And that will mean learning to be around other people, to communicate, to ask for what she needs and to give of herself to others. McHenry’s success is that Ginny is still Ginny at the end of the book, but she’s Ginny with a few after-market parts.

It’s impossible to write about The Kitchen Daughter without talking about food. Food is Ginny’s language; she interprets the world through her senses with a vocabulary based on ingredients and the application of heat. She understands transformation, the way onions go from hard white shards to tangles of golden sweetness. Almost everything she confronts is compared to an ingredient, even down to a man whose bald head reminds her of a moist chicken breast and whose breath is like bean water. Ginny retreats to the kitchen for self-care; it is the one place where she is in control, where “normal” is not as important as what tastes best to Ginny. So yes, it is A FOOD BOOK, but only in the sense that food is what Ginny knows, and to learn to understand Ginny is to learn a little about cooking. (As many a grandmother has said, it won’t kill you.)

That concept of normalcy is at the heart of The Kitchen Daughter. The magic realism elements are carefully employed to heighten Ginny’s journey from sheltered kitchen daughter to sturdy kitchen woman. By the end of the book, food is not only something for her to work on and learn about and obsess over; it’s also something to also share with the ones she loves. Jael McHenry has done a remarkable job in characterizing Ginny and giving her the kind of story arc that allows her to grow while remaining true to herself. I think you should read it, and allow Ginny to frustrate you and to bring out your protective instincts and to feed whatever part of your soul needs a little hot ribollita.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry is on sale tomorrow, April 12.

IndieBound | Powell’s | McNally Robinson

leaving... and coming back

Many thanks to Atria for the review copy.

Many thanks to Atria for the review copy.

When Jane was thirteen, she said something I also said from the time I was very young: “I am never getting married and I am never having children.” When I said that, people laughed and told me I’d change my mind. (I did, but only about marriage.) When Jane said it, her father took it to heart. Hearing his daughter announce her disdain for marriage and family, he left his wife and child the next day. Her mother has never let her forget it.

Jane doesn’t let her absentee father and passive-aggressive mother keep her down, though. She becomes an accomplished Lit prof, even though nothing’s ever easy for her with men or with her career. When level-headed Jane winds up in a relationship with mercurial film buff Theo, even she isn’t wholeheartedly confident about their future. And then, of course, there’s a baby. Theo, never father material to begin with, embarks on a bizarre get-rich-quick scheme with a slinky film distributor. And though until this point we’ve seen Jane handle lots of very rough situations, she’s not prepared for the ocean of bad heading her way. When it lands squarely upon her, she has no choice but to leave the world. Try as she might, though, she won’t get her way. The world isn’t ready to let go of Jane. In fact, she’s going to prove essential to several people she’d never have met if she had given up when she did.

It’s never easy to read about someone who struggles with depression and miserable circumstances. I know some people who reviewed it on Goodreads were bothered by the relentless run of bad circumstances that Jane had to deal with. But without miserable circumstances, there just isn’t a book. Without conflict, trial, and something to defeat, you just have a character traipsing through a field of wildflowers. It’s not so much what Jane suffers—and oh, she really suffers—but how she processes her suffering, the ways she fails, how she gets up the next day. While it’s not a gritty, urban novel where poverty is at the root of most social problems, it was just as wrenching for me to read. Leaving the World takes its characters up a level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and reminds us that, just because we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, it doesn’t mean that our struggles are any less harrowing or that our mistakes are any less catastrophic.

In Jane Howard, Douglas Kennedy gave me an intelligent female protagonist who wasn’t a cold fish, socially inept, or cutesy-quirky; a woman who was deeply troubled without being weak and who made grievous errors of judgment but didn’t come across as stupid while doing so. The book is unabashedly commercial yet delves deeply into the human condition. Jane is a whole woman, a character I’d want to be friends with. It’s awful of me to admit that I never expect a male author to give me this much emotional resonance, and it’s rare when one does. Leaving the World was a wonderful surprise of a read and I can’t wait to read more of Kennedy’s work.