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A tale of friendship and recipes.

Book Review: The Recipe Club: A Tale of Food and Friendship by Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel

My friend (and fellow Blogcritic writer, Chelsea) and I were recently talking about how chick lit nowadays seems to equate with a lot of fluffiness and little substance. Yes it was amusing following Becky Bloomwood (of Shopaholic fame) while she figured out how to put her life back together after nearly burying herself in debt, but how inspirational is it that a smart, 21st century woman from England falls prey again and again to the exact same pattern of behaviour? While it makes for great fluff, it get rather depressing by the fifth book to realize that Becky will never change. And if a fictional character can’t change, what hope is there for us real people?

This conversation was the first time I was verbalizing something that has been niggling at me for a long while; why aren’t there more chick books à la Jennifer Weiner or à la The Knitting Club? Jennifer Weiner’s books are easy to read, packed with laughter and yet with quite a lot of substance. The Knitting Club was the same; a charming, heart-warming and at times heart-breaking story of very different women who come together because of their love for knitting and who struggle throughout the book to better themselves, all the while making for easy and laughter filled reading.

Sorry Becky, but you have overstayed your welcome.

I’m really happy to be able to add another title to my list of great chick lit with substance. The Recipe Club is a charming, heart-warming and at the same time heart-breaking tale of two best friends who struggle through the typical ups and downs of a friendship between two extremely different people. Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel's novel is mostly a collection of letters, recipes and emails that were exchanged throughout the course of a long friendship between two best friends, Lilly and Valerie. The story finishes off with a small section of narration and a couple of invitations to special events you will be privy to when you read the book.

But this review is not like a movie trailer; it will not provide you with spoilers, nor hand you on a platter its best parts.

As many know, friendships are not always (if ever) easy; they take effort to begin, maintain and sustain, and can be quite exhausting. On the flip side, friendships are irreplaceable pieces of one’s life; as the saying goes, girlfriends really are the sisters we choose for ourselves.

The Recipe Club doesn’t follow a typical choronology, and yet doesn’t confuse us as much as, say, The Time-Traveler’s Wife did (which, by the way, is another awesome book everyone should read). It begins in the year 2000, right after Valerie’s mother passes away; she reaches out to Lilly, her best friend whom we quickly figure out she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.

I know; if they are such good friends, what in the world happened that they wouldn’t even talk for such a long time?

Lilly is the flirtatious, confident cabaret singer turned caterer whose mother, a beautiful performer herself, had a difficult relationship with her father, a removed and disapproving figure in their lives. Valerie is the bookworm, the smart yet socially awkward friend whose mother is stuck at home due to a serious anxiety problem and whose father is an inventor. These two very different women struggle throughout the years to understand one another; despite their differences, and despite a 26 year long dry spell during which they didn’t once speak to one another, one comes to the help of the other after a family tragedy.

The book is divided in three parts and has a post-script to it (the kind you wish all your favorite books had, just to let you know what happened to those lovable characters whose lives you followed so closely will be in the close future). The first part, mentioned above, is in 2000, and barely spans a couple of months during which Lilly and Valerie don’t even see or talk to each other; only a couple of emails sent to each other. The second part takes us back to 1964 and spans nine years, until 1973. A collection of letters, it tells the tale of a friendship, its ups and downs as well as its downfall. The third part takes us to 2002, and we finally really figure out what went wrong in 1973 and if the two friends will finally be able to lay their past to rest.

However, things can’t be easy, and the author beautifully plays with the enormous range of emotions that exists between two close female friends, especially when they struggle with understand one another.

The use of recipes throughout the book seems at first like a cheap ploy to market it to an audience who, while not interested enough to purchase a book of fiction, might be interested in a book of recipes. But it soon becomes obvious that much thought has been put into not only the story, but also into the recipes. They are chosen with care, reflecting the increasing complexity of the human psyche through the evolution in the complexity of the recipes, the state of mind of each young woman as they struggle with various obstacles in their lives.

Up to now, the only work of fiction I have read that made the best use of recipes is Rosewater and Soda Bread by Marsha Mehran, but even her attempt wasn’t seamless; while most of the time, the cooking (and, hence, the recipes) was a reflection of the inner turmoil of the character doing it, it still felt halting at moments.

But credit must be given when credit is due: it’s not easy integrating recipes into a story; quite honestly, I have yet to read a book that seamlessly does so. While I found the idea cute, it seemed a little out of place, to have a recipe at every other page. Cooking didn’t really have anything to do with bringing Lilly and Valerie together, and cooking didn’t have an important part to play in keeping them together. Perhaps if the plot included a certain more obvious way of cooking as an important part of their relationship, then it would have made more sense. Fortunately enough, the recipes don’t take away from the story itself. I will even credit the story even more, that something that potentially could have been irritating – a bunch of recipes here and there that didn’t seem to make any other sense that being stuck in there – just became something to skip over to get to the next part and see what is going to happen.

One thing is certain; a good way of integrating recipes into a story is to make the kitchen the center of everything in the plot (a little like Rosewater and Soda Bread). And while The Knitting Club obviously didn’t make use of recipes, it would have been a seamless addition to add knitting patterns to the book (which unfortunately it didn’t), as the bulk of the action occurs in a knitting store.

In short, The Recipe Club is a fantastic read, and you will make use of the recipes scattered throughout – albeit after you’ve finished reading the books. I tried out the Peanut Butter Blondie Bars on page 185, and they were wonderful; I am planning on trying out The Nutty Professor Cookies next (do you detect a pattern?) And one great thing about this book is the fact that it is printed on heavy paper, making the pages open and stay open easily while cooking. The other great thing is that for the most part, each recipe has its own page, so no flipping around is necessary. And, once you’ve read the book, it’s a great way to have something under hand to read which waiting for the butter to melt.

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