Roberta's Reviews > When in Doubt, Add Butter

When in Doubt, Add Butter by Beth Harbison
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Apr 08, 12

Read in April, 2012

Send Back this Chicken Soup
(note: contains mild spoilers)

America, land of many appetites: Americans do love their food, and when they’re not eating, they love looking at cooking shows or reading about food. I am no exception, and as a chronic dieter, seek vicarious living through scrumptious food writing, so I considered myself fortunate to receive an Advance Reading Copy of Harbison’s book. (After all, who with a pulse doesn’t love butter?) I was anticipating something along the lines of Chocolat and Julie & Julia… it’s hard not to sell me on the relatively glamorous work lives of personal chefs: even though their clients are finicky and fussy in their own particular ways, most of us have a desire to make a living creating masterpieces, whether with words (as I aspire to) or with ingredients. This book looks at Gemma Craig’s (yep, that’s her real name) ups and downs (but mostly ups) in following her culinary passions instead of the more secure, and, we’re told, “loathsome” desk job the rest of us have to settle for.

The stench of marketing is all over this book and its nauseatingly chatty, over-familiar prose. This is what happens when books are overly influenced by blogging and its nouveau-confessional “style” (which is better characterized by a lack of style, a lack of cohesion). In the first hundred or so pages in particular, instead of ‘show, don’t tell,’ this book is, disappointingly, all ‘tell.’ It’s sad because there are nice quirks of phrase, but they have to be mined for like coins on the beach with a metal detector.

There are some adolescent mumblings about the nature of fate, as one convenient coincidence after another marks the second half of the book, but Gemma’s life escapades are so improbable—even for fiction, where the suspension of disbelief is supposed to be the name of the game—that any meditations on the nature of fate (serious questions such as, how do we even know if we’re making the right decision, especially in who we choose to make our business or romantic partners ) never seriously get addressed, let alone teased out or deconstructed.

Nor does Gemma seem to be standing in for some sort of morality play figure: there really doesn’t seem to be a message here at all, apart from an experiment in how much mileage a catchy title will get you. The author’s bias toward positive psychology—i.e., don’t overthink things, a little faith will take you a long way—definitely shows, but could have been worse: there was an occasional effort to give Gemma some adversity, adversity that could have given her a nominal bit of depth, had that depth been earnestly attempted. But it’s hard to be sympathetic for our lady Gemma when she can’t get country-club clients, even though it’s totally because of one of her bitchy/insecure bosses: her food is just so utterly awesome that fame, fortune, and business can never be too far behind: nothing gets too dark in this world.
I suppose my major beef (pun intended) with the text is not how it slides into the “chick-lit” genre of which it obviously aspires to be in, but how sloppily it attempts to glide onto that shelf. Seekers of chick-lit could fare better elsewhere, with writing that’s less lazy. As a reviewer, I aim to be lavish with praise and blame both, but there’s precious little to praise here. The dialogue is not memorable, and even the food writing seems (pun intended) thin. There’s a lot of filler, but not a lot of substance.

Really, I think I have figured out why we seek out this literature: unable to cope with the shortcomings in our own lives, we wonder if these quasi-realistic characters do things differently, or give us some insight into how to solve our own problems. We seek catharsis through them, at best, and merely are voyeuristically looking into a shop window, at worst.

Harbison’s protagonist is both unrealistic and out-of-touch in the carefully manipulated purposely “down to earth” moments that fall flat, painted as they are in broad strokes: this book is fodder for airports, where I am sure it will do quite well, and I can already picture the major studio movie in the making due to all the perfunctorily “quirky” characters, few of which are deeply developed, some of whom dole the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” advice that’s perennially popular with most Americans. You can call me cynical, but I have a strong feeling a movie will be made out of this, but it’s not a great movie when the ensemble is more interesting than the protagonist.

The total lack of realism—even in an alleged work of escapism—demands little (and, insultingly, expects even less) of its reader.
Even though I’m a female in my late 20s and supposedly either in or on the fringe of what must be the target demo of this book, it’s annoying to read of people in their late 30s (Gemma) wondering, page after page, if they’re ‘over the hill’ or destined to be a ‘spinster’ in terms of intimacy/ relationships/ romance/ family. Sorry, St. Martin’s, but I must be one of the few people in my generation who’s not a hipster, not “fabulous” or wrapped up in the pursuit of “fabulous,” and not worried about not establishing a family, because I know that families take many forms even after natural fertility has passed: Gemma, preoccupied about her biological clock, decides to keep her second pregnancy though it came, we’re led to believe, at “the worst time” careerwise; staying single for longer and perhaps eventually adopting (as she herself put her first teenage pregnancy up for adoption) is an option for other people, not her. Considering her allegedly ambivalent views on marriage and growing up with a single mother (she had no father around), you would think these questions, good ones, would take up more psychic real estate, but they don’t. It is important to note that I’m not moralizing on these issues themselves—as I’m openly not having children, I’m at best indifferent on other people’s reproductive dilemmas, real and imagined—but it’s interesting that, if these are supposedly the major emotional subtexts that underlie Gemma’s decisions, how little they’re explored—which affirms my position that the book is sloppily written. Gemma’s emotional investment in her own life seems limited, detached, and as a consequence I had very limited empathy for her faux predicaments.

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, this is what happens when a book is designed by a focus group. Nearly every chick-lit cliché is acknowledged in standard post-modern self-awareness style, then played out anyway, with predictable and unimaginative results. Feminist theorists will have some choice bits to latch onto and give an exegesis not permitted here, such as when Gemma says “As clichéd as it was—and as big a setback for feminist values—I really liked taking care of people and making things easier and nicer for them” (105-106). But even possibilities for analysis are slim, because this self-absorbed text so rarely acknowledges any world outside its own bubble.

Put another way: don’t worry, struggling, aspiring real-world ladies who might be reading this: our protagonist gets everything she wants at the end, all the mess (not that there was all that much mess) is cleaned up—with no sense of irony to boot— and her motley crew of clients all do well too. The neat, happily-ever-after ending, is, of course, also as false and inauthentic as it gets, making investing time in the book unsatisfying.

For those of us who want a little meaning in with our escapism, though, who want to be indulged without having our intelligence slammed, this book is a deep disappointment.

In ten words or less: too heavy on the estrogen, too light on the butter.
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