THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS by Erica Bauermeister

THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Take a batch of characters, toss them into one cooking class, glaze heavily with folk wisdom.

Lillian, the Pacific Northwest restaurant owner and teacher of the Monday night school of the book’s title, is part matchmaker, part Buddhist priest, part Alice Waters. She specializes in organic ingredients and a slow-cooking, who-needs-recipes style, an approach she perfected as a child when her dad ran off and her mother retreated into books. Cooking, for her, is a pathway to healing, and conveniently enough her latest group of students could each use some help. Among them are Chloe, a young woman who’s klutzy and in a bad relationship; Tom, who’s mourning the death of his wife; Claire, a mom who fears motherhood is erasing her identity; Ian, a computer engineer who’s incapable even of cooking a pot of rice; and Carl and Helen, an older couple who’ve gotten past a history of infidelity. Together they reminisce, vent and learn their way around crab dishes, cakes and Thanksgiving dinners, even though Lillian’s stingy about instructions and the entrees aren’t exactly beginners’ fare. Bauermeister capably evokes the sensual pleasures of a busy kitchen, but her story is thickly sentimental, all smoothed edges and earnest dialogue. For instance, one character introduces herself, ridiculously, by saying, “before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days.” No worries: Lillian will assuredly give her and the rest of the class some direction, and Bauermeister guides each individual’s story along with a pitiless blitzkrieg of soft-focus similes and metaphors—each action and detail persistently equates to a dancing child, a happy puppy, a down comforter, a butterfly or a flower. To her credit, the author pulls off a tough trick of juggling an assortment of characters and making each feel lived-in and human. But as she inevitably guides each toward bliss, the book feels less empathetic and more hokey and melodramatic.

The stifling humidity of the prose will push a lot of readers out of this kitchen.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-399-15543-7
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2008




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