- Audiobook Review
- Author: Ruth Reichl
- Performed by Julia Whalen
- Released: November 2015 on Audible, published by Random House Audiobooks
- Category: Contemporary Fiction
In her bestselling memoirs Ruth Reichl has long illuminated the theme of how food defines us, and never more so than in her dazzling fiction debut about sisters, family ties, and a young woman who must finally let go of guilt and grief to embrace her own true gifts.
Billie Breslin has left college, her home in California and moved to New York for a fresh start after a family tragedy. Her new job is with Delicious, a well known and loved food magazine, as assistant to the editor, Jake Newberry. She also fits in a weekend job at Fontanari’s delicatessen. When the magazine ceases publication, Billie is kept on to honour the Delicious guarantee of refunds for covering the cost of ingredients for recipe disasters, and enquiries for recipes which have featured in past issues.
Billie finds working at the now deserted old Timbers mansion, which previously housed Delicious, lonely and boring until she and Sammy, the travel editor, find a secret room in the magazine’s library. They unearth a hoard of letters written by a young girl, Lulu Swan, to James Beard, during WWll. Beard is a famous and celebrated chef and a previous employee at Delicious. Billie begins to feel a connection to Lulu, which deepens the more letters she reads.
December 18, 1942
Dear Mr Beard,
The telegram man came today. I saw him walk up Lookout Avenue, through our little white gate and go under the grape arbor, and the whole time he was walking up the flagstone path to our door, my heart was pounding. When he rang the bell I didn’t want to answer it……………….I was going to send you some for Christmas, but Mother says that you have no use for cookies from a little girl in Akron who can hardly cook. (She always underestimates me, but that is my cross to bear.) So I am sending you another pot holder. It comes with my very dearest wish that your holidays are happier than ours
The correspondence between Lulu and James Beard is quite compelling and form a large part of the book. The story they reveal is poignant and highlights the war years, the hardships and uncertainty of what the future might bring. This was the best part of the story for me and I wanted to know more about Lulu. Billie I found to be a little stereotypical in that she’s good at most things – ‘an eloquent writer and an awesome cook’ – but sees herself as pretty useless and doesn’t cook anymore. The ugly duckling just waiting to be turned into a swan, by being persuaded to get contact lenses, have a hair cut and stop wearing baggy, nondescript clothes. There’s a tragedy in her past, which is why she shies away from cooking. It’s fairly easy to guess, but remains unresolved until the final part of the story.
The audio held my attention regardless of the fact it’s thirteen hours long. It might have been different had I been reading but Julia Whalen’s narrations are always easy to listen to. The mystery surrounding Lulu and the letters is engaging and intriguing. The detailing about food rationing, foraging and how the Italian Americans were treated during the war is very well researched, interesting and incorporated into the story smoothly. Characters are colourful, eccentric and mostly likeable, particularly Sal and Rosalie Fontanari.
Food is the other topic central to the story and the descriptions are mouth wateringly delicious. The foray into Little Italy with Sal and Billie, and the speciality food shops they stop at along the way is a delight. The descriptions of New York and the sense of community in the neighbourhood are lovely.
I’ve never been disappointed with a narration by Julia Whelan and this is no exception. The characters’ individuality is brought out exceptionally well.
Just as an aside – there are three covers for this book. The one on the left is my least favourite but it does resonate with the story. The one at the top of the post is the audio cover and is appropriate with the letters and cupcake, and I do like the cover on the right. Again it’s relevant because it depicts what Fontanari’s might look like. Which do you prefer?
About Ruth Reichl
Ruth Reichl, Gourmet’s editor in chief, is the author of the best-selling memoirs Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, and Garlic and Sapphires, and the forthcoming Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. She is executive producer of the two-time James Beard Award-winning Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie, which airs on public television across the country, and the editor of the Modern Library Food Series. Before coming to Gourmet, she was the restaurant critic for the New York Times, receiving two James Beard Awards for her work. She lectures frequently on food and culture.