Thursday, July 18, 2013

A Recipe Worth Trying

The School of Essential Ingredients
by Erica Bauermeister
Published by Berkley Trade
4 Out of 5 Stars

The School of Essential Ingredients is a quick read focused on a Monday night cooking class held at a popular local restaurant, Lillian's. Lillian herself presides over these classes and, as someone who has always had an intrinsic understanding of the power of food to heal and comfort, she eagerly awaits each new class to see the transformations (some positive, some negative) that her students undergo as they respond to the food around them. The novel opens as Lillian welcomes her new students: a beautiful woman, a happily married older couple, a harried young mother, an analytic young man, an uncertain and undefined young woman, an older woman who is losing her memory, and a damaged man. 

Each chapter in the novel is told from the point of view of one of the students, as we find out more about their pasts, discover their reasons for taking the class, and witness how new relationships are forged. Just as the ingredients in a recipe blend together to create a new whole, so, too, do the lives of the students intersect in surprising ways.

I was initially drawn to this book because of its focus on food, which 
turned out to be the least compelling aspect of the book for me. Instead, it's the character sketches that held the most intrigue for me. To the outside world, these are ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, but as Bauermeister delves into each character's past, we find that the masks we present to the world hide life's scars, personal insecurities, and profound tragedies. Reading each character's narrative is a little like people watching--only instead of wondering what the lives of strangers are like, we actually get to peek inside their lives. The most accomplished of these narratives is the story of Carl and Helen, the older couple whose seemingly happy marriage, as we learn from seeing the story of their early life together from each spouse's perspective, was hard-earned and not as simple as they make it look.

In fact, the one thing about the book that almost sabotaged it for me by tipping the scales too much in the direction of saccharine sentimentality turned out to be the connections to food, especially in the form of Lillian. Lillian is presented as an omniscient mystic, who somehow always knows what lessons in food will actually translate into the life lessons her individual students need to pick them up, dust them off, and set them down the right path in life. While Lillian's own back story does provide a context for this, it did seem a little too contrived. However, it certainly wasn't enough of a distraction to prevent me from enjoying and recommending the book.

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