Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Recipe for Secrets

The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan


It wasn't as if Lila didn't know what she was getting into when she married Sam, but she didn't know what Sam was going to get into when he got his dream job of restaurant critic for a major Philadelphia newspaper. With her toddler daughter and another baby on the way, Lila knows that moving to a new city isn't going to be easy. However, Sam is making it even harder for her, because he's suspicious of everyone, including the neighbors. That's because if a restaurant critic doesn't have his anonymity, he can't write an objective review, since the chef and staff will never treat him like just another customer. To top it all off, not only is Lila lonely because she can't make friends, she's also aching to go back to work. Unfortunately, going back to her high-profile position as a crisis manager for the Addison Hotel chain can only put Sam's attempts at obscurity in even more danger.

Yes, I know what you're thinking, not another "wife of" book, but seriously, is the title of a book so important? I mean, if the book is good, certainly we can forgive the author (or publisher, or editor) for giving us a title that seems a bit less than creative or original. Of course, there's the old saying that we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, so perhaps we shouldn't judge a book by its title either. That said, I love the cover of this book, but I have to admit that the title almost put me off. What grabbed me, however, was the blurb. I do like culinary fiction stories, as well as ones that have female protagonists, so this one seemed to fit the bill.

What LaBan gives us here is wholly Lila's story. Here's a woman who was a professional, and successful in her job. Not very long after she breaks up with her (mostly long-distance) boyfriend of two years, she meets Sam Soto and they fall in love. One thing leads to another (in this instance, a pregnancy that leads to a marriage). The focus here is on how Lila tells the reader the trials and tribulations of becoming a stay-at-home mother, while her husband's job makes her almost go into total hiding. While that seems to be enough of a problem, Lila soon realizes that as much as she loves being a mother, she also needs to be back in the workforce, for her own sanity as much as her own self-worth.

LaBan's style is light and comfortable, with just enough seriousness to build Lila into the type of woman that we come across every day. Mostly we like her, but there are times we want to slap her when she's blind to some of the stupid things she does. Lila is also a truly modern woman who doesn't depend on a man to make her happy, yet finds one that does. Even so, she sometimes falls into situations where she forgets her own strengths, and allows the weaknesses of others to control her actions. I'd say that Lila has the potential to be the type of model feminist that we all aspire to become, especially because we can appreciate and understand her frustrations when sidetracked or she loses focus.

What makes this book fun is how creative Sam gets in trying to keep his identity a secret while visiting these restaurants. We laugh at his amateurish attempts to disguise himself while patting himself on his back at his cleverness, but Lila knows when Sam's failed to fool anyone but himself. Unfortunately, Sam's paranoia at failing to stay incognito also becomes Lila's problem, when the gossip columnist Sy Silver spots her at eateries or with people connected to the restaurant business around town. Adding to this are the delicious descriptions of the foods that they sample along the way, together with each chapter headed by a snippet from one of Sam's reviews (each one of which foreshadows the coming chapter).

However, fun isn't everything, and what brings this out of the genre of simple comedy is how LaBan incorporates levels of self-analysis and introspection into Lila's character. In turn, Lila uses these aspects of her narrative to try to get to grips with her precarious circumstances, while at the same time, trying to understand her own feelings as well as what she really wants for her future - both professionally and in her growing family.


LaBan carefully balances the mixture of these two elements throughout the book (with one small exception), keeping this story from being either overly silly or overly serious. This only becomes obvious when LaBan makes the mistake of letting Lila over-psychoanalyze herself and all the people in her life for a handful of pages near the end of the book. A more self-indulgent writer wouldn't have been able to keep that single false step so nicely contained and that is, if you ask me, close to a stroke of genius. Those few pages are the only thing keeping me from giving this book a full five stars. All told, I really enjoyed this book; I liked Lila and all the other characters, and drooled at the foods along the way. That's why I can warmly recommend this book with a strong four and a half stars out of five. 




"The Restaurant Critic's Wife" by Elizabeth LaBan, published by Lake Union, release date January 5, 2016, is available (for pre-order) from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publisher for allowing me to read the ARC of this book in exchange for a fair review via NetGalley.

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