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by Jessica Soffer

Pub Date: April 16th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-547-75926-5
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

An unhappy teen and a shellshocked widow make a vital connection, though not the one they initially think, in Soffer’s somber debut.

Both 14-year-old Lorca and elderly Victoria are carrying a lot of emotional baggage when they meet. Lorca has just been suspended from school after a fellow student finds her cutting herself—a practice, we soon learn, to which she is helplessly addicted. Victoria’s husband, Joseph, has just died after a long illness, and she is haunted by guilt about the baby she gave up for adoption against his wishes many years ago. Lorca’s real problem is her impenetrably self-absorbed mother, a successful Manhattan chef who prevents the girl from maintaining any connection with her long-divorced husband and frequently stays out late drinking with her equally unnurturing sister. Mom’s only response to her daughter’s desperate attempts to win her favor by cooking wonderful meals is to criticize them, so when Lorca hears her tell Aunt Lou that her favorite dish ever was masgouf, a baked fish “from an Iraqi restaurant that’s closed now,” she determines to track it down and learn to make it perfectly. It turns out that the restaurant belonged to Joseph and Victoria, whose pushy neighbor Dottie has just persuaded her to give cooking lessons. Conveniently, Lorca is the only student who shows up, and these two painfully lonely souls not only bond over food, but become convinced that Lorca’s mother (who was adopted) must be Victoria’s abandoned daughter. The truth is a lot more complicated and won’t be arrived at until there have been several more instances of Lorca’s ghastly self-harming (described in gruesome detail) and of her mother’s incredible callousness. (“I don’t know what you want me to do,” she says, watching her daughter burn her arm with a lighter.) The plot twists are too obvious and the characters too predictable for the tentatively hopeful ending to be very persuasive.

Well-written and atmospheric, but overdetermined and relentlessly grim.