A bestselling food writer tries his hand at fiction.
After 20 nonfiction books and cookbook collaborations, Ruhlman (Egg, 2014, etc.) has written three novellas linked by themes of nostalgia, midlife sexuality, marital fidelity (or lack thereof), and drunk driving. The first, In Short Measures, set at Duke University, explores a midlife reconnection between college lovers occasioned by the funeral of an important writing professor. The woman has remained at the college as a classic single-lady librarian; the man is a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, married with children. Despite much literary window dressing—Gatsby is read aloud in its entirety; Ben Jonson and Shakespeare make contributions—the story of this interrupted affair has a bit of a romance-novel feel. The third story, Sally Forth, is similar to the first: again college lovers, one of whom is a writer, are center stage; again, their reconnection has dramatic consequences; again, the action is set among references to Hardy, Nabokov, Dickinson, etc. Fortunately, these two are separated by a quite different story, perhaps the most successful of the three. Strong Conspirators is more of an emotional thriller than a romance. Here, the central couple has good reason to yearn for "the way we were" since they are currently embroiled in covering up the truth about an alcohol-fueled vehicular homicide a few days before Christmas. The wife, who wasn't even in the car, lies to the police to protect her husband; the questions of whether or not they will get away with it and who they will become because of it create the most powerful narrative momentum in the collection. Strong Conspirators, which doesn't have characters who are writers and is not filled with literary hat-tipping, suggests the direction Ruhlman might best pursue if he continues to play this side of the street.
The rarely seen but quite enjoyable novella form serves this maiden effort well.