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Book Review: The Reluctant Entertainer: Every Woman’s Guide to Simple and Gracious Hospitality by Sandy Coughlin

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In The Reluctant Entertainer, a book that grew out of the blog by the same name, Sandy Coughlin encourages women of all ages to extend simple, gracious hospitality. And she does more: she shows them how.

Coughlin begins by naming and exploring excuses many women give for not inviting people into their homes: busyness, can’t cook, house not big or fancy enough, don’t know how to keep a conversation going, etc. She encourages readers to leave these excuses behind in the nine chapters that follow. She covers subjects like how to overcome perfectionism, how to simplify hosting meals and parties, how to create an appealing ambience using the five senses, and how to deepen the level of interaction by asking stimulating questions, encouraging authentic conversations, and looking for ways to show hospitality that go beyond having people over for dinner.

Recipes are interspersed throughout the text with an appendix of more recipes at the back. As well there is a section on the pantry — what to stock in it and how to organize it.

The book is a thing of physical beauty — a cross between a coffee table and durable recipe book. It is bound in hardcover, not with plain vanilla under a dustjacket but sporting its own colourful front and back. It is printed on heavy, glossy paper with at last one colour photo illustration per two-page spread. Most of the photos are courtesy Coughlin’s husband Paul. Included are some family pictures that cross the generations, giving the book a homey feel.

Coughlin’s writing style reminds me of the warm, chatty tone of a blog. Although there were places where I thought the writing could have been more varied (in one section “perfectionism” and its variants were used repeatedly and close together) and clearer (“Finally she decided to rid herself of those lies that were bogging her down: fanciness; perfection; material stuff like her home, yard and dishes…” So how exactly are fanciness, perfection etc. lies?), altogether the book was a pleasure to read.

Some things I liked about it:

  • Coughlin’s ideas of how to include children in the mix, from ways to accommodate the toddler crowd to strategies for getting older kids to mingle with the adults and make them feel like part of the action.
  • The way the author stresses the importance of genuinely caring for people. This comes out especially in the chapters on making conversation and establishing deep connections, where she talks of showing hospitality in non-dinner-party ways (like delivering meals to sick people, taking old or disabled neighbours shopping, and inviting the people others ignore into one’s home). She says:

    “When I think of hospitality, it goes far beyond the standard dinner party. Hospitality happens in our homes, in our churches, and in our neighbourhoods. It’s the spark of friendships, of soul-satisfying experiences with others, eventually taking us to deeper connections as we learn how to reach out.” p. 103.

  • The recipes. They look scrumptious and doable. However, the glossy paper means that if you want to jot notes beside them, you’ll need to do it in pen.
  • Several usable lists, e.g. The Ten Commandments of Hospitality (p. 27), ideas for types of parties (p. 67), yard sale tips (p. 74-75), and questions to use as conversation starters (p. 94).
  • Coughlin’s experience. Because she has such a hospitable bent herself she knows whereof she speaks and gives useful pointers, pitfalls to avoid, and encouragement for times when things don’t go as planned. She has weathered the storms of food not turning out, hijacked conversations, and awkward silences, and, she assures us, so will we.

The Reluctant Entertainer would make a beautiful gift for a new bride. But don’t rule it out for the more established hostess. I’ve been entertaining (sometimes reluctantly, too) for almost 30 years, and it encouraged and inspired me!

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About Violet Nesdoly