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Book Review: Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love by Lara Vapnyar

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Lara Vapnyar has a fascination with food, although not of the type usually written about and praised. Vapnyar's selection of food resembles her approach to fiction, which is simple, straightforward, and sustaining. Her first collection of short stories (There are Jews in My House) showed the promise of a gifted story writer, and this second collection (a novel was published in between) confirm earlier expectations. The Russian born writer, now living in New York, came to the U.S. when she was 23 but writes in English. Perhaps writing in a second language has granted Vapnyar an economy with words other writers may want to imitate.

Many of the stories deal with the Russian immigrant experience, especially in New York, where all the Russians are henceforth working as "computer programmers" no matter what their previous work entailed. Nina, the main character in the opening "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf," actually was a computer programmer. Now she is obsessed with vegetable shopping, although she never actually gets around to cooking with them. Cooking food, as in many of these stories, indicates a hope for the future, of what people like Nina will someday accomplish. In the meantime, the vegetables rot in the refrigerator, another set of hopes turning moldy. However, while Vapnyar may deal in realism, she is not above seeing hope as the story ends with Nina standing on a chair above the broccoli finally steaming on the stove as "its warm aroma of … rose up, caressing Nina's face, enveloping the whole of her."

The realism also takes hold in "Salad Olivier" where we see the heroine challenged to find a husband which, according to a psychologist, will allow her father to rise from the couch and reenter life. When she discovers such a man she realizes he may be more for his parents than for her, although she likes everything about him. Tempted to move on, she maintains the relationship in way that may be more familiar to most than they are comfortable with.

Sex and food, never far apart since the creation of the novel (see Fielding's "Tom Jones") are also part of the landscape here; although in "Borscht" it is the lack of sex and in "Slicing Sauteed Spinach" it is the focus on sex for which food is always the backdrop. "Borscht" is a sentimental favorite in the surprisingly quick creation of two sad, yet forward moving lives. In many ways this story highlights Vapnyar's skill with the short story as it creates a range of emotions in just a few pages,all with little action.

But "Luda and Milena" stands out in the collection as a story which is bound to be anthologized in future collegiate readers. Here we find two older single women (one a widow) using food as a way to entice the lone, elderly Russian man in their ESL class. The Friday potlucks become battlegrounds in the war for the heart, made only more hilarious by the complete dislike of cooking each woman holds. The ending creates a satisfying resolution, but one completely unexpected.

Vapnyar's not afraid of ending a story, although like many short stories written today they can be seen as "slices of life." But the reader gets a complete picture in each story and Vapnyar is usually willing to point the story in a direction which goes beyond her pages.

At the end Vapnyar even throws in some recipes with her own stories, although cold borscht may not be on everyone's menu. More importantly, as a whole we have a complete collection of stories offering a unique voice to American literature and a great new writer of the short story.

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About Derek Emerson