The Kitchen is the Center of the Home
Starting from Scratch. Susan Gilbert-Collins. Touchstone. 320 pp. $15.
What’s the worst possible thing that could happen on the day you defend your doctorate dissertation? Olivia Tschetter could tell you. On this particular day, a day only she and her mother, Vivian, knew about (they were going to surprise the rest of the family), Vivian dies of a stroke.
The Good: Gilbert-Collins handles grief as elegantly as a souffle–with intention and delicate respect. In the days immediately following Vivian’s death, Olivia turns to food, a passion she shares with her mother, as a means of staying connected to the person with whom she felt closest.
“Olivia, you cannot continue on this way. You cannot sit here doing nothing with your days but making veal osso buco for lunch.”
“Actually, I used lamb shanks.”
“–and coq au vin for dinner–and–and beef Wellington for breakfast.”
“I have never made beef Wellington for breakfast,” Olivia said coldly. She had in fact eaten some for breakfast, just last week–Father had, too (he was looking away guilty now)–but only because it was left from the night before. They had a hard time finishing all their leftovers these days.
Anyhow, it hadn’t quite turned out, and therefore, Olivia felt, shouldn’t count. She definitely lacked Vivian’s touch with puff pastry. In fact, she ought to have used store-bought; this thought depressed her heavily.
The Bad: While on the whole delectable, parts of the novel fall into place almost too easily. Olivia, as a favor to her sister and in lieu of anything else to do, walks into Meals on Wheels as a one-time substitute and walks out with a job. And, coincidentally enough, a woman on her route happens to hold secrets about her family.
The Ugly: Sooner or later, at the end of grief or quite possibly part of the process itself, we must move on. This is where the true ugliness of death lies: Vivian will not be around to celebrate birthday cakes, graduation caps or wedding gowns. She remains a mere character, alive only in her children and the recipes she leaves for them to cook. This, undoubtedly, is the beauty of the book. Vivian, dead from the beginning, will never die, so long as she rises delicately in the aroma of freshly cooked raviolis smothered in a rich marinara sauce.