A Seattle chef and her circle of friends cope with life’s pivotal moments.
In this follow-up to The School of Essential Ingredients (2009), Chef Lillian continues to run her small restaurant, which has become a hub for people in transition. In what is essentially a collection of linked stories, the following characters have their say: Al, Lillian's accountant; her sous-chef, Chloe; Isabelle, an elderly woman with whom Chloe is staying; the lanky and taciturn dishwasher, Finnegan; Louise, Al's tightly wound wife; Lillian’s new boyfriend, widower Tom; and Isabelle’s daughter Abby, a stickler for order. Chance dictates these characters’ interactions, as does mutual attraction or dislike. Miscommunication is a major theme, at times blunted by almost farcical misunderstandings, as when Louise assumes Al is having an affair with Chloe, while Al assumes Louise no longer wants his affection. Lillian has just discovered she is pregnant and cannot bring herself to tell Tom, who later will take offense that Isabelle found out before he did. Isabelle knows that she is sliding into possible Alzheimer’s, and Abby (one of the more realistic portrayals) is exasperated that her younger siblings aren’t joining her in pressuring their mother to sell the family cabin to pay for her long-term care. At Isabelle’s behest (when she’s not forgetting things, she’s a wise woman), Chloe goes out with Finnegan, who encourages her to keep a notebook. She’s beginning to think he might be soul-mate material until she sees his trunk full of notebooks by other girlfriends, a disturbing find that Finnegan must explain in his own chapter. Lush descriptions of food, including the smells that provoke Lillian’s telltale morning sickness, tie it all together. Although the art of uncrossing all these mixed signals (a bit too neatly) is not lost on Bauermeister, the narrative, carried by so many disparate points of view, never quite comes into focus.
So robust and resilient are Bauermeister’s characters that readers may wish she had challenged them with thornier dilemmas.