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Two Novels About Slightly Eccentric Chefs

The Glass Kitchen: A Novel of Sisters by Linda Francis Lee St. Martin’s Press, 2014 Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter Penguin Books, 2008 Portia Cuthcart senses what other people will want to eat when faced with a life-changing decision. She’s compelled to buy the ingredients and cook the food even before the recipients show up. That’s the quirk that propels this delightful, slightly fantastic novel by Linda Francis Lee. Portia is the youngest of three sisters, and the only one with the “knowing” The Glass Kitchen is the name of her grandmother’s restaurant, and in the end Portia gets her prince, a wealthy businessman named Gabriel Kane. The allusions to the Cinderella story are clear, but this plot deviates from the expected. Portia and her sisters, we are told, grew up in a trailer in Texas, yet each moves easily now in the circles of financiers and politicians. The sisters are nice, not nasty. They all now live in Manhattan, and Portia makes her home in the basement of her late aunt’s brownstone. The other sisters sold their shares of the house to Gabriel Kane, who acts as though Portia should have departed as well. But he and she start an affair, and she can’t leave, basically because in addition to falling in love with the diffident Gabriel, she’s also attached to his twelve-year-old daughter, Ariel. Ariel is the true heart of this story. She’s a perceptive and intrepid little girl, desperate for love and stability following the death of her mother. Her older sister Miranda is rebellious and as unkind as teenagers can be. Ariel and Portia bond as youngest siblings whose mothers died young when Portia is hired as the Kane family cook. It’s Ariel who uncovers this family’s secrets. Lee shines in her ability to convey the world of a child on the edge of adolescence. We’re kept on tenterhooks as Ariel navigates the cabs and trains of New York on her own and secretly to get to the government department where birth records are kept. The book begins with Portia’s awareness of the family’s panic when one of her older sisters goes missing for a few hours, and this theme is continued in Francis’ description of Miranda Gabriel’s teenage behavior. How do we grow up and separate ourselves from our parents to be independent human beings, and how do we do that under the circumstances of a parent’s death, when that caretaker is no longer around? Chez Moi is a charming read. A French woman, Myriam, we learn over the opening pages of this book, is divorced or separated from her husband and son, has not seen them for six years, has lost her job and is penniless, and in desperation, takes out loans to start a restaurant. She’s so poor she sleeps on a banquette in the tiny dining room, bathes in the kitchen sink, and shops, because she has no car, in the mini-mart. From this unpromising position, she produces fabulous meals. At first no one comes to the restaurant. Not surprisingly, because she has been too busy and too poor to put up a sign. But then, two students appear and become regulars. They send her an assistant, a fellow student, Ben. As a novelistic creation Ben seems to have magic powers. He is kind, helpful, generous, takes no salary, and makes the restaurant a success. He seems to have no bad qualities. Normally this would be a set up for a betrayal but that’s not where this story goes. So is he really magical, or is this story about what happens when a woman comes out of a years-long depression caused by a terrible marriage and finds that ordinary people can be kind? There are no recipes in this book but the food descriptions are quite mouth-watering. I read this book in a single sitting.

Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look By Helen Garner Text Publishing Company, 2016 Joe Cinque’s Consolation By Helen Garner Picador, 2004 Wry observations on the damage aging can do to one’s self-esteem? Uncomfortably honest musings about human behavior? Gorgeous writing – masterly prose – even in a diary – that confirms the author’s reputation as one of Australia’s greatest contemporary writers? All these thoughts came to mind when I read Helen Garner’s latest collection of essays, Everywhere I Look. It’s a mélange of previously published pieces and diary entries, displaying Garner’s characteristic humor, self-deprecation and brutal self-examination. Garner burst to fame with her novel, Monkey Grip, a story about young people living in squalor and on drugs in inner-city Melbourne. What shocked readers was the realism of the prose (Garner later said the book was based on her diaries) and the fact that the squatters were not derelicts but were middle-class young people who had chosen this life as a slap in the face to convention. She went on to write other novels and several books of non-fiction. One of these, This House of Grief, was reviewed earlier in these pages. Accused by some of drawing too literally on her personal experience and her friends’ lives, Garner is unnervingly honest in her depiction of her own less-than- saintly states of mind. Because she shows her own faults she allows us to feel compassion for those she writes about and for humanity in general. In later years she’s become particularly interested in murderers. She invites us to consider that any one of us could be pushed to the edge to commit a terrible act. In Joe Cinque’s Consolation, her account of the murder trial of law student Anu Singh, who killed her boyfriend, Garner asks, “But didn’t the fascination, the terror of her story lie in the fact that she embodied a barbaric force in each of us that we must at all costs control?” This is the question that underlies all Garner’s work. That urge to murder lies dormant in all of us, she suggests. It’s roused in war. It’s the reason we revel in TV shows about detectives. Then she asks, “What is sin? Is it the inability to imagine the suffering of others?” In her later books Garner comes back again and again to this question. Unsparing of herself, in Everywhere I Look she admits shame for her own youthful actions. To what degree, she implies, is narcissism justified? The artist must seek truth and live authentically. This necessarily involves some pain to others – some not seeing of their suffering. Again and again, Garner confronts the reader with her honesty, nudging us towards our own looking inward – and then towards compassion to ourselves and others. How honest must authors be? And is emotional honesty the hallmark of great writing?