If you don’t know this about me, I don’t do “heartwarming” any more than I do “chick lit”. This book is described on Goodreads as a story of two women “who find each other and a new kind of family through their mutual love of cooking.” Blech.
But this book caught me from the first few pages with the character of Lorca, a desperately lonely teenager who is addicted to cutting herself. This “heartwarming” book was surprisingly gritty and emotionally raw. I didn’t want to put it down and I didn’t want to leave these characters.
Lorca, named for the poet, is caught between an emotionally manipulative mother and an absent father. Lorca worships her mother, a successful chef, and shows her love by learning everything about her mother’s craft. When she’s found cutting herself and expelled from school, her mother threatens to send her to boarding school, so she decides she’ll earn her mother’s love by learning to prepare her mother’s favorite meal, an Iraqi fish dish called masgouf.
She takes cooking lessons with Victoria, an elderly Iraqi immigrant who used to run a restaurant with her husband, who just died of cancer. Both women are pretty damaged so they are immediately drawn to each other.
I loved the way this book was written. It would be easy to be sticky sweet and overly melodramatic and this book isn’t. Yes, there are food metaphors, but food is a background, not the story. And it’s realistic that this girl who only sees love through food would seek to cook a perfect meal for her mother.
The relationships in this book are so well-drawn, all of the characters are complex and all have their own heartbreaks to deal with. The characters tiptoe around each other, afraid to say or reveal too much. No one is quite what they seem, except the irony is that people really do see each other for who they are.
Lorca’s relationship with her mother and father is heartbreaking – I think I would have taken a knife to that woman if I was in her kitchen (no I wouldn’t, but I thought about it). I just wanted to cry for Lorca, and yet she’s not pathetic, she’s incredibly strong.
I also really liked Victoria, this tough, hardened woman who has to relive and question her entire marriage after her husband dies. I was fascinated by Victoria and Joseph’s history as Jews in Iraq and their experience moving to America. Victoria and Joseph gave a child up for adoption early in their marriage, and it was a rift in their otherwise strong marriage that they never got over. I was a little worried about this part of the story – any book that tries to tell me I can’t be happy without having children is not the book for me. But I can see where having a child and giving her up is something that would follow you for the rest of your life.
I also worried that this book would get cutesy or predictable, but it didn’t, and I loved it for that.
Soffer really excels in the small moments of this book, like Lorca getting to know Blot, or the first time Lorca and Victoria meet, or Victoria’s friend Dottie helping her get dressed for her first cooking lesson. For me, it was all of these “small moments” that kept me reading through the more melodramatic parts.
We stood there staring. I would have run away but I couldn’t feel my feet. I had no idea if they were hot or cold or what shoes I was wearing. I couldn’t look down either. I couldn’t tell if I was being strong on the outside and concealing what was on the inside, or the other way around. My arm felt leaded, so heavy. Blot’s face disappeared into the movement of the city. All I could see were his eyes, sparkling like a candle that had just been lit.
There’s a reader on Goodreads who complains that the characters were so broken she couldn’t find one to identify with. I had to laugh, because that’s so not me. This book isn’t heartwarming, it’s heart-breaking. If you’re looking for easy, this isn’t the book for you.
I don’t know why this whole review is about what the book wasn’t. Here’s what it was: a surprisingly complex, beautifully written book about family, love, marriage, friendship, loss, and growing old. Oh, and cooking. I loved everything about it.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.