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Fiction Round-Up For the Star-Ledger

April 2, 2009

Five novels to feed the reader’s imagination
Reviewed by Elizabeth Willse for the Star-Ledger
3/27/09

The School of Essential Ingredients
Erica Bauermeister
GP Putnam’s Sons, 256 pp., $24.95

In this warm, satisfying exploration of food, cooking and memory, the eight students in Lillian’s cooking class learn recipes and deeper truths about themselves and each other. Lillian’s teaching style blends fancy, intuition and nourishing wisdom. She encourages students, from a teenage waitress to a widower to a long-married couple, to trust themselves and savor the way food spurs memory.

Erica Bauermeister blends honest characters with evocative food writing. With mouthwatering prose, Bauermeister shifts focus seamlessly in each chapter, to reach back into the lives of Lillian and her students, exploring the smells, tastes and past loves that bring them into the class. On par with cinematically sensual novels such as Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water For Chocolate,” ‘The School for Essential Ingredients” is a beautiful fusion of food and memory. Readers can practically taste the roasted crabs, gourmet Thanksgiving dinner and spicy pasta sauce Bauermeister describes. This wonderful, delicious novel’s only flaw is the omission of recipes.

While My Sister Sleeps
Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday, 336 pp., $25.95

When young Olympic hopeful marathoner Robin Snow collapses from a heart attack on a practice run, the structure of her family collapses, too. Her guilt-stricken sister, Molly, becomes the family’s anchor. Her mother, Kathryn, keeps anguished vigil as Robin lies in a deep coma.

Best-selling author Barbara Delinsky writes the family’s shock and grief with dignity, without resorting to voyeurism or melodrama. Delinsky works most closely with Molly and Kathryn’s perspectives, but occasionally shifts to husband Charlie or brother Chris. Chris’s struggle to share his grief with his wife, Erin, is honestly written, emotionally stunted with hope for growth.

Men outside the family do not fare so well in subplots. Manipulative journalist Nick’s redemptive turnaround happens so abruptly, it feels pat. David, the Good Samaritan who found Robin, is welcomed surprisingly easily into the Snows’ close-knit family circle.

The greatest strength of this nuanced novel is the slowly unfolding detail of the narrative as the Snow family grieves, learns acceptance and grows closer.

First Daughter
Eric Van Lustbader
Forge Books, 400 pp., $25.95

“First Daughter” is more nuanced than the usual fast-paced political thriller. Van Lustbader, known for his continuation of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels, uses the search for a criminal mastermind to explore larger themes like parents’ grief, tensions between church and state, and a young man’s struggle with dyslexia. The result is a substantial and thoughtful mystery that keeps the plot twists coming.

Dyslexia grants ATF agent Jack McClure surprising flashes of insight in his search for the president-elect’s kidnapped daughter, Alli. A keen visual sense gives him an intuitive grasp of crime scenes, but he wrestles with his secret disability.

The incumbent president is a devout man, keen to keep religion at the forefront of government. As the tension surrounding Alli’s disappearance mounts, the incumbent’s administration tries to use the secular humanist movement as a scapegoat.

This complex and ambitious novel successfully blends history, psychology, politics and suspense into a rich, textured story. Readers will want to see more of McClure.

The Way Through Doors
Jesse Ball
Vintage Books, 240 pp., $13.95

“The Way Through Doors” presents an endless spiral of stories folding in and out of one another. Pamphleteer Selah Morse lands a powerful job as a ministry inspector. His duties take him all over the city, on errands laden with whimsy and surrealism.

He rescues a young woman who has lost her memory. Posing as her boyfriend in the hospital, he is instructed to take her home and tell her stories to help her piece together who she is. These stories fold in on themselves or peter out into mystery, leaving the reader breathless and perplexed. Rather than trying to wrestle these nested stories into linear logic, it’s best to go with the flow.

Treat this novel like a collection of fairy tales or even poetry. Tales of a fiddle-playing dog, a jealous gambler, and even Selah himself, are haunting as they ebb and flow through their own internal logic, inviting the reader on a journey of image and symbolism that only hints at resolution.

Bruno, Chief of Police
Martin Walker
Knopf, 288 pp., $24.95

As much a love letter to the French countryside as it is a small town mystery, this enjoyable novel tells the story of a grisly hate crime that shocks the sleepy town of St. Denis in France’s Perigord region. Police chief Benoit Courreges, known to his colleagues, his rugby team and his tennis students as Bruno, cherishes his small-town life. When a local Muslim man is murdered, French law enforcement, detectives and press swarm the small town. Only Bruno understands both his superiors’ perspective on solving the crime, and the loyalties, friendships, old feuds and rich history of St. Denis.

Martin Walker combines a methodically paced mystery with vibrant atmospheric descriptions of Bruno’s everyday life. Historical and religious questions add depth without weighing down the story. Walker captures French village life and cuisine so perfectly that readers will be eager to explore St. Denis and the surrounding countryside with Bruno as their guide. Hopefully, Bruno’s adventures will continue across future novels.

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