The August (I know, I know, but I somehow overlooked it, so it’s getting a very last review post) book theme for my long-distance book club was food. I have no idea where we came up with that, but it was a fun theme that prompted a lot of super awesome book suggestions! Plus, convenient, because prompt #21 for Reading Women Challenge 2020 is “A Book About Food.” I had never heard of this one before it was suggested/voted the winner, and it’s been awhile since I read a book under those circumstances, so that was kind of a fun change of pace.
“…walking through those strange, crowded downtown streets, where people were sticking their hands into pickle barrels, pointing to smoked fish, and eating sliced herring, I saw the scene in a whole new way. The weren’t buying food: They were finding their way home.”
Billie Breslin dropped out of school and headed from CA to NYC to take a job at the famous food magazine, Delicious!. Although she is alone and far from home/family, she is quickly adopted by the magazine’s other staff members and local food institutions. When Delicious! is closed suddenly, Billie stays on to help with loose ends (and to help make end meets), while looking for a new position. But alone in the old offices, she makes a fantastic discovery: a secret room in the library full of letters from a young girl in Ohio to famous chef James Beard written during WWII. While getting to know the writer, Lulu, through her words, Billie also starts to realize that perhaps it’s time for her to step up into her own life, opening up her heart, owning her talents, and letting go of fears/the past.
I usually like to start on a positive note, but there are a couple things I need to mention before I get to that. First, this title is…honestly, I think it’s awful. It has an exclamation mark in it. And I know it’s the name of the magazine, but naming a food-themed book “delicious” just seems…pretentious and also a bit shallow, at the same time. I can honestly say that the title alone would have made me not want to read it, if I glanced at it on a shelf. So, this book owes it to my book club vote that I picked it up in the first place. Also, and this is personal, I was really apprehensive going in because I’m a bit over the “found letters” device in books, especially WWII era letters. This just seems like one of the most overdone themes/time periods/devices in literature right now. (Please note – this is, obviously, just my opinion, take it or leave it.) Anyways, needless to say, my expectations upon starting were thus tempered.
On the whole, I have to say that I enjoyed this book more than I had expected to – so take that, judgmental past me! It was super charming. A cozy little mystery wrapped up with a sweet present-day self-discovery and low-key romance situation. It was light and airy, like the soufflé of books, to be on theme. The story and plot were compulsively readable and I listened to the audiobook at 1.5 speed (a first for me) because I was that into seeing where things were going to end up (and also it wasn’t so complex that I needed a slower intake/processing time). I also ended up feeling like the letter situation was handled well. It gave a bit of structure and framing and prompting to Billie’s “coming of age” situation, but never took over too much. I was so glad there were no jumps in time between Lulu and Billie’s perspective – I think that would have taken it too far for me. It was cool to see Billie discover Lulu just in the present day and just through her written words. I also liked seeing more of a home-front view of WWII, which is definitely not a popular perspective in popular contemporarily-written WWII historical fiction. It was also weaved together well with some of Billie’s new work friends telling her about their own families’ experiences during the time, and how she (and I) both learned some things we didn’t know before, particularly regarding the way Italians were treated in the US.
I also would be remiss if I didn’t mention food. OMG the food. My mouth was constantly watering while listening to this. I have never wanted to snack while reading more…which is saying a lot, because I am into snacks. Especially cheese – GAHHHH THE CHEESE. So, yea, that part was awesome. You can tell the author’s background is in food and food writing, because those sections had the most passion and evocative descriptions. And I enjoyed the correspondence between Lulu and Beard about food and how creative they got with what was available during the war. Again, I commend Reichl for focusing on a less popular/more original aspect for the wartime experience than one normally gets.
On the other hand, a few things were less stellar, at least for me. One is definitely Billie’s self-image and relationship with her older sister, Genie. Although reckoning with that is a major aspect of Billie’s self-discovery, which is great (and much needed for her), I felt terrible for how long and how much she lived in her sister’s shadow. It was totally realistic, so I guess it maybe doesn’t belong with the other points in this section, because it was a tough theme but not a questionable part of the story/writing, but I didn’t know where else to put it. In any case, just a bit heart-breaking to read.
Relatedly, and legit troublesome, I really was not ok with the treatment of Genie’s situation as her story comes more to light. I really don’t want to give spoilers, since this is a major part of the “mystery” piece of the novel, but the way that her own struggles and illnesses were ignored/overlooked/talked about bothered me…I know it’s partly from my personal experience and field of work, but it was not addressed by the author in a way that I would consider at all healthy or understanding and, in fact, perpetuated some harmful stereotypes. Anyways, maybe I’m over-sensitive to the topic, but it put me off quite a bit (a damper on what was otherwise just a really entertaining read). Last, despite the clear attempt to add layers to characters, I felt in many ways they were quite single-dimensional and typecast, from Billie’s “meek girl transformation” to Sal’s “New York Italian” and more, many of the characters tried to be more, but didn’t quite make it. It wasn’t so bad that I didn’t still enjoy the story, but none of them will stick with me for long, I know that for sure. (Random bonus points for the unexpected reality of Mrs. Cloverly though – that part was sweet and funny.)
Overall, this was a much more enjoyable read that I had necessarily anticipated, which is always a nice surprise. It was sweet and pretty fun and kept me invested, plot-wise, start to finish. I had my issues with it, as far as depth and the way some topics handled, plus it got a little cheesy (pun intended), but if it’s something that sounds like it’d be up your alley, content and story wise, I would encourage you to go for it. Just….make sure you have some cheese and other snacks on hand when you pick it up because I promise that you’ll regret it if you don’t!