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Starting From Scratch- book review

September 11, 2010

Starting From Scratch
Susan Gilbert-Collins
Touchstone, August 2010 $16.00 336 pages

Introducing the Tschetter sisters as they mourn the death of their mother, Vivian, provides an immediate, and intimate view of their relationship to each other and to their father, as they attempt to piece their lives back together. One sister’s a successful local meteorologist. One sister’s balancing the demands of a husband and children with her own health puzzle. Their brother is attempting to find love with such perplexity that it becomes a family joke.

And one sister, Olivia, appears to be frozen in place. She’s spent months living at home, cooking elaborate meals from her mother’s cookbooks, not finishing her doctorate. Her aimlessness and grieving are just as obvious to her family as to the reader. I feel mean addressing Olivia’s food-as-grieving psychology as plausible, but contrived. Her sisters are just as frustrated with her aimlessness as I was. I don’t understand why she doesn’t tell them she’s already defended her thesis, or why brooding over that revelation occupies her to that extent.

Olivia’s family gives her a kick in the butt, to start doing work at Meals on Wheels, and finish her mother’s last issue of the newsletter, Cooking With Vivian. Despite her determination to stay standoffish, she finds herself relaxing, even reaching out to someone connected to her mother’s past, and re-engaging in family life, with its ordinary, life-goes-on dramas. (I love the big Tschetter clan, eating, fighting, talking, laughing. Reminds me of Thanksgiving.)

Reading about Olivia’s deliberate aloofness confused me, even annoyed me in spots. Again, I feel mean for judging even a fictional character’s grieving process, but I found Olivia’s interior life hard to read. Is it shyness? Anguish? Her sisters seem like such good sisters, ready to reach out and help her, if she’d let them, even though life without their mother is just as hard on them. Olivia’s aunts are ready to share the work of cooking, if Olivia would only reach out. Once Olivia begins to emerge from isolated brooding and reconnect, the book gets much more interesting. And to my delight, there are recipes at the back of the book. Haven’t tried them yet, but definitely curious about the pink dessert.

(thanks to Shida Carr at Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, for sending me this to review.)

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