Friday, November 20, 2009

Review: The Recipe Club by Andrea Israel and Nancy Garfinkel

This is a big, gorgeous, appealing mix of a book. It's an epistolary novel. It has recipes. It has pictures and doodles. In short, it is a beautifully designed, lovely feeling book. All of it wrapped up together should have equalled a book I'd rave over. And it was good, it just wasn't great.

Opening with childhood friends Lilly and Val reconnecting after years of silence, the friends start exchanging e-mails, thrilled to be speaking again. Until they have to face the issue that originally tore them apart, where it becomes obvious that each is still laboring under a cloud of hurt and recrimination and their versions of what destroyed their friendship in the first place are diametrically opposed. Before things get acrimonious between them again, they did recall fondly the Recipe Club they created as children whereby they sent each other letters and recipes on a regular basis.

The second part of the book takes the reader back to the beginnings of the Recipe Club and to the innocent times of their childhood. As they exchange letters through the years, their characters are revealed more fully as are their perceptions of their parents and others around them. The recipes included with the letters refer to something discussed in the letter or created as a reaction to an event. And the letters from these girls turning into young women continue on until the betrayal that is too big to be forgiven.

The third section of the book initially eschews the letter and e-mail format of the previous sections, instead using third person narration whereby Val discovers that Lilly's father has passed away. And this is the catalyst for a second reconnection between the women and the exposure of an explosive secret that changes everything. Lilly and Val must come to understand and forgive events far beyond their own control if they want to have any kind of relationship at all.

I love the premise of the book and the presentation but I thought the letters exchanged by the girls early on were a bit too sophisticated and in depth for their ages. I wrote letters to friends from the time I was in 3rd grade and saved all of their letters to me and the letters from Lilly and Val seem far more introspective and thoughtful than the letters my friends and I exchanged. The argument could certainly be made that Lilly and Val were just more sophisticated girls than my friends and I were but the fact that the letters never change in tone or point to emotional maturation on Lilly and Val's parts would then be incredibly troubling given their ages at the start of their Recipe Club.

The narrative arc of the story is well managed and the gaps in the narrative, while frustrating, would be true of a friendship based mainly on letters. As time went on in the story, the recipes did become more sophisticated, as would be expected. I flagged many of the recipes and they look really tasty. The theme of family and friendship and how they are created and maintained, how they inform and shape a person, and how they can break down is strong here. Having lost several very close friends over the years, I empathized with Lilly and Val's plight. But I had a tough time getting past Val's neediness and Lilly's superiority. Obviously this is a personal reaction to the characters as they are drawn and other readers might react entirely differently. I so wanted to be wowed by this book but was left vaguely disappointed and feeling just a little flat.

Thanks to Caitlin of FSB Associates for sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. I've been so excited about this book, so I'm a little disappointed to see it's not great. I'm glad to know it's not a stinker, though. Great review.

  2. I have heard such great things about this book, I see you had a different view so now I am really curious as to what i will find in this book. A friend is sending me their copy.


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