Two peculiar loners bond over the culinary arts in this debut novel.
Fresh out of L’Ecole Gastronomique, the enthusiastic and frizzy-haired Alexandra “Lexie” Haynes scores a coveted gig as a private chef at Frederick House, an isolated, country estate. The catch? Her client, John Frederick, is…particular. A man of ample proportions, he rarely leaves his bedroom, communicates via handwritten notes, and owns every volume of Bon Appétit dating back to 1955. It’s a precarious employment, to say the least. Despite a mishap that nearly gets Lexie fired, a common love of food leads the two eccentrics to forge a tentative friendship. Soon, John Frederick feels brave enough to venture into the kitchen and meet Lexie face to face (“Lexie will be making breakfast. It doesn’t matter that she has cooked breakfast every day for the past few months. Last night, he decided that this would be the first morning he would join her to eat”). But Caleb Mayfield, John Frederick’s business manager and Lexie’s could-be beau, threatens to disrupt the almost-happy home. It’s a jolly, lighthearted narrative, JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You (2012) for foodies. Gastronomic references are sprinkled throughout the prose— Lexie’s eyes are the color of “blueberry sorbet mixed with cream,” and a dashed hope is a soufflé that has collapsed. Novak is kind to her characters, poking gentle fun at their childlike qualities. Accident-prone and insecure, Lexie is an “inveterate talker to walls, trees, and other objects,” whose interactions with other people are punctuated by vivid daydreams. John Frederick’s devotion to filling his stomach is superseded only by his difficulty with coping with change, which is put to the test when medical issues force him to alter his diet. Though it could be mistaken for lazy development, the characters’ simplicity remains endearing. There is also handsome Caleb. Though an effective plot device, John Frederick’s jealousy over Caleb’s acquaintance with Lexie is a stretch, given the brevity of the two’s interactions. Between the straightforward characters and short chapters (at 134 pages, it’s a speedy read), the novel is sometimes reminiscent of a children’s book. An absolutely lovely work, but it’s more appetizer than hearty main dish.
Like a slice of a favorite dessert, thoroughly enjoyable, but gone too soon.