Tragedy, war, fairy-tale makeover, trauma resolution, romance and—of course—food are just some of the ingredients in dining critic and celebrated memoirist Reichl’s (Garlic and Sapphires, 2005, etc.) first novel, a bittersweet pudding with some lumps in the batter.
Food metaphors irresistibly suggest themselves when considering this author’s flavor-driven debut, set in the New York offices of Delicious!, a magazine not unlike Gourmet, where Reichl was editor in chief. At the fictional magazine, Billie Breslin, 21 and gifted with a prodigious palate, gets a job as editor’s assistant and encounters a kindly cast of foodies, including travel editor Sammy and cheese shop owner Sal. Billie writes emails to her older, prettier, more popular sister, Genie, with whom, implausibly, she set up a successful cake-baking business in California when they were 10 and 11. But Billie’s mysterious past is merely one strand of Reichl’s tenderly written yet overstuffed story, which shifts focus after the magazine is suddenly closed down. A cache of wartime letters from a child named Lulu to famous chef James Beard, which Billie unearths in a hidden room behind the magazine’s library, is used to pull in some odd, heavyweight issues, including World War II injustices against Italian-Americans and the Underground Railroad. Meanwhile, Sammy has encouraged Billie to open up about the secrets of her past, after which it’s time for contact lenses, a cool haircut and a new wardrobe, converting the ugly duckling into a kooky swan. This helps Billie’s attraction to Mr. Complainer—one of Sal's picky customers and a top-rated architectural historian—take wing. An argument and the search for Lulu prolong the story, but Reichl manages to bring matters comfortingly to rest with a kitchen epiphany and a recipe.
Reichl’s first fictional outing is something of a curate’s egg—good in parts.