Hoo boy, my quest for Fabulous Summer Reads is not going well: Earlier this week, I was less-than-enthused about Una LaMarche’s Five Summers, and now, sadly, Stewart Lewis’ The Secret Ingredient has me feeling the same way. While I didn’t go in with high expectations—the only thing his first book inspired in me was a desire to re-read Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes—I still walked away from The Secret Ingredient feeling somewhat let down.
It’s the summer before Olivia is due to begin her senior year in high school. Her dads are floundering financially and possibly romantically. Her brother is, as usual, a disaster. And she, for the first time, is starting to get curious about her birth mother. All of the difficult stuff aside, though, she’s actually pretty content with her life: Frustrations aside, she loves her family and knows that they all love her; she is confident in and proud of her aptitude for the culinary arts; she has an endlessly generous, endlessly supportive best friend. Also, there’s this boy....
Despite all of the emotionally charged issues (adoption! cancer! dead dog! grief! first love! coming of age! unreliable parents! the meaning of life!) and interest-piquing details (mysterious psychic! stolen ice cream truck! vintage cookbook that includes intriguing personal notes! cameo by Jude Law!) and plotting that is moved along by many serendipitous events, The Secret Ingredient is just kind of...dull. Although her meditations on cooking and food have a nice placid sort of energy, the rest of Olivia’s narration plods, and despite the likable nature of most of the characters, the dialogue feels superscripted—heavy conversation after heavy conversation after heavy conversation, and none of the characters ever seem to have any trouble whatsoever articulating anything—and thus, unbelievable. So, while it isn’t a book that made me want to punch a wall, it isn’t one that I’ll still remember, like, tomorrow.
A few others about cooking that I DO still remember, months and even years later:
Bittersweet, by Sarah Ockler: A figure skater trains her high school hockey team! It’s like The Cutting Edge, but you know, GOOD. AND WITH CUPCAKES!
A La Carte, by Tanita S. Davis: A story about family and friendship and food narrated by a girl who aspires to be the next Julia Child. Sweet without being cloying, this book is just about as lovely as it gets.
Getting the Girl: A Guide to Private Investigation, Surveillance, and Cookery, by Susan Juby: Okay, granted: The cooking takes a backseat to the amateur sleuthing and the spying. But it’s hilarious and adorable and smart and thoughtful, and I loved it and you should read it.
Pinned, by Sharon G. Flake: Autumn, a female wrestler and aspiring chef, alternates narration with Adonis, the object of her affection and the smartest boy in school. It’s about different kinds of intelligence, about friendship, about how avoiding problems only delays them, and about how sometimes we really do have to give up the things we love. Super, super book.
And now I will continue my search for this year’s Book of Summer: feel free to recommend one!
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.