"The School of Essential Ingredients"

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister.

Lillian holds a cooking class on Monday nights in the kitchen of her restaurant. She has eight students: a long-married couple, a busy young mother, a grieving widower, an Italian designer, a troubled young girl, an aging woman with failing memory, and a single man discontent with his ordered life. Strangers at the start, their lives will become permanently intertwined in a few short weeks.

Each character is given a chapter of his own with the others weaving in and out so that none of the characters gets lost, each staying present and relevant. Three of the characters stood out to me but that will be different for each reader. All of them are likeable with no conflicts arising among them in the course of the story, which is unrealistic but then there's a lot of that in this book.

I have mixed feelings about the writing. For me there are a few too many similes, some of which are very good but some of which feel forced. Either way it gets almost comical after a while and I'm sure that wasn't the impression Bauermeister wanted to make. She does put words together nicely. Phrases like: "words had a meaning beyond the music of their inflections" and "Lillian's mother collected exquisite phrases and complicated rhythms, descriptions that undulated across the page" are evidence of her skill with words and her lyrical bent, though when she finished that last one with "like cake batter pouring into a pan" it fell apart for me. Not everything has to be compared to food.

There's a lot of weirdness between the covers of this book. For example, Lillian's classes are centered on dishes that seem chosen to explain and provide solutions for the problems of her students, though she knew none of them beforehand. The implication is that if they can master the intricacies of the dish, they will master the intricacies of their lives. Everything she says is terribly deep and heavy with meaning. She always seems to know just what each person needs to hear; in my Book Club they called her Yoda. And Lillian is only the beginning.

Another character, Ian, lives above a Chinese restaurant where they "sense" what he needs to eat (they do have menus and they must give some of their customers what they order or they'd have gone out of business long ago). Somehow the foods they bring him (and he never complains about not getting what he ordered) open his eyes to truths about life that set him free to pursue what he really wants. I would like to have some Chinese food like that.

Then there's Tom, the grieving young widower who in learning how to make a meat sauce also learns how to let go of his grief, and Claire, who feels she's lost something of herself in being wife and mother to her family, but finds herself again in killing and cooking crabs. And Isabelle, an older woman who has lost most of her memories of a past lover and is encouraged to handle some pasta dough to help remember again. And if you think that's odd, wait till you find out what Tom bakes into his cake.

It's not as silly as I'm making it sound, but the whole thing seems a bit naive to me. I can appreciate the authour's basic point about slowing down and savouring the moments and flavours of life, but seriously comparing the complexity of human lives and problems to cooking and finding every character's solution in a recipe is awfully simplistic and stretches credibility to the limit.

In spite of all that, it's not bad. It's an easy, pleasant read with interesting characters and a decent story. I might have enjoyed it more if only I'd been able to shake the recurring mental image of crowds of people in robes chanting mantras about meat sauce.


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