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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.

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