I have mixed feelings about the concept of a novel in stories – interwoven stories that overlap characters and action. I love delving into character history, the meatier the better, and a novel in stories seems to be a way to access this. But with no overarching plot the stories land a bit lighter than intended, more like writing exercises than storytelling.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister has many elements I enjoy – teases of magical realism, sensual descriptions, moments of lovely broad back story. I finished quickly and promptly felt hungry.
The first chapter/story is about Lillian, the instructor of The School of Essential Ingredients, a class she offers on nights her restaurant is closed. We learn about her quest to use cooking to coax her mother back to the world of the living after her father abandons them. Recipes provided by Abuelita are less instructions and more ideas – they read like a magical spell.
(Side note – I really never like reading about a young child left to wander around and make friends of strangers, like the kindly grandmother figure who owns a strange cookery store and teaches the girl to cook. Maybe it’s when the child is wandering around in a more ‘real’ world that it bothers me. Plunk an eleven-year old in a dark forest filled with unicorns and it’s a quest. It doesn’t feel like a quest when she rides the bus. That feels like neglect. I’ll have to work that element of fiction out, I suppose.)
So, spoiler – Lillian succeeds with Abuelita’s help and her mother once again pays attention to her. Then we’re thrust into another chapter following Claire, a student of The School. That chapter ended with Claire eating the crab she had clobbered herself (Victory!) and then “Slowly, Claire opened her eyes.”
I think I sighed here but I pushed on, 56 pages in was enough to commit to a couple more. I read about Carl and Helen – she cheated, he forgave her. Antonia, an Italian transplant, is beautiful and lonely. Chloe is young and obsessed with her boyfriend, a bad boy. I’ll spare you.
Tom’s chapter could have been an entire book. This should have been the book. (Him or Lillian, or both, knowing how Bauermeister sets things up.) His grief compels him toward the kitchen where his dead wife reigned. He works through his sadness as he works on a recipe. There are some more heavy lines handed from present to flashback. Lillian tells Tom to stir the eggs with a fork and make sure there are no lumps. After some blank space, we learn Tom found the lump in his wife’s breast.
I will be the first to say writing isn’t easy. I know it’s not. It should look easy thought – that is good writing. Bauermeister reads obvious, which is a different point all together. She is drawing lovely lines between cooking and many aspects of life but lumpy eggs to a lump in a breast is just obvious. The ideas are lovely; the execution is not subtle enough.
No overarching plot – except that the same group of people keep returning to the restaurant one night a month – so the main point becomes the bringing together of people. How food brings people together. Nothing new here. Although one coupling in the story surprised me, in a good way – young Chloe leaves her jerk boyfriend and, needing a place to stay, moves in with Isabelle, the confused old lady who shows up on the wrong day sometimes. Assuming Chloe really is a sweet girl and won’t rob Isabelle blind, that connection alone felt novel.
The School of Essential Ingredients was fine. It reads fast and includes many vivid descriptions of food. There is a nugget of goodness buried in this idea. I wish it had been brought to fruition.