Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister - 256 pgs

Book CoverLillian has discovered that the art of preparing fine foods can heal many of the soul's wounds. Personal experience tells her so. As students filter into the cooking school that she holds in her restaurant every Monday night, she begins to teach them the secrets of culinary excellence, tailoring the meals to each particular person's unspoken need. As raw ingredients are transformed into luscious feasts, each person in the class is also changed. From the frazzled housewife to the couple with a stormy past, each person begins to realize that the lessons taught in Lillian's kitchen have far greater reach than the table. Carrying the secrets of the kitchen back into their own lives, the students start to experience greater understanding and healing in their own lives and begin to see the class as a refuge, where the compassion of one chef and the support of each other coalesce in unexpected and curative ways.

As a lover of food literature, I have to say this book was divine. I found the food descriptions to be wonderfully luscious and intriguing, and the human element of the story was great as well. The chapters, which focused in turn on each of the students, were crafted very compellingly because they seemed to be written in various styles. They were not so different as to be jarring, but the writing of each subject was done in a unique and singular way. I took this as a great sign of the author's versatility. She was able to make each character's chapter their own by making small changes in the writing technique.

I also loved the depth of emotion in this story. The author showed great empathy and consideration for her characters and was able to enrich the story with great emotional control. I loved the tenderness and humility of her characters. These were thoughtful and deep people who were able to express intrinsic emotions in proportion tho their circumstances. The emotional scenes in this book were written with great acuity and depth, and ranged from a light playfulness to a profound grief. I think the author used each blank canvas of character in magnetic and engaging ways that added substantial dimension to the book. Her characters weren't stereotypical knock-offs, they seemed like authentic and genuine people, like people you know, people you love. This book could have easily been overblown with drama, but the author was able to form her narrative and characters with a wonderful humility and temperance.

I found Lillian's character to be a marvel. She was consistently loving and calm towards all her students, showing by example the healing and restorative nature of life through food. I found Lillian to be a wonderfully frank and disarming person. Whenever she was on the page I knew that something great was about to be uncovered. I loved the way she enabled her students to make the most of their lessons, and their lives, both praising and teaching at the same time. She was a wonderfully competent character, both believable and charming. The story was extremely moving as well. It was both perceptive and profound, especially the chapters involving Tom, the man hiding a secret heartbreak. Although I loved Lillian, I think it was Tom and his story that moved me the most. I cried while reading Tom's sections, sharing his anguish and despair with a heavy heart.

And have I mentioned the food? The food aspects of the story were fascinating and delectable. Many times throughout this book I read and reread the passages relating to the food. Her descriptions of the smells and look of the foods being prepared were like poetry, lyrical and passionate in a way I didn't expect, yet fully appreciated. I thought it was an exceptional additional benefit that almost all the food sections were written in the form of instructions, not recipes per se, but in a way that melded the story with bits of guidance that would make it easy for the reader to put together any of the featured dishes in the book.

This book was a delight on multiple levels. It was a combination of the tenacity of the human spirit and an ambrosial documentary of fine cuisine. I would have gladly read another hundred pages of this novel, had it only been written! This is not to say that the story ended unsatisfactorily, because it certainly did not. I just wanted more of this magnificent and savory tale. I thought the author did a wonderful job in both the idea and the execution. It was a quiet and uplifting tale full of scrumptious spreads. I would like to read this one again, just for the food this time. Highly recommended for foodies and those who are looking for a rich and satisfying novel.


Darlene said...

What a beautiful review! I just loved this book also. I spent so much time rereading the passages on food descriptions. This is such a beautifully written book and one I'll go back to someday and reread.

Ana S. said...

This sounds like such a lovely book. I'm actually not very into food literature, but I definitely like tender books with believable characters and emotional depth. So yeah...I want to read this.

Anonymous said...

This sounds great! I wouldn't say I'm drawn to food literature, but I'm intrigued after reading your review. I agree with you that it's nice when an author can pull off swapping out perspectives each chapter, but it can often be jarring - I'm glad to hear that wasn't the case here! I will keep my eyes peeled for this one the next time I'm on the prowl for books!

Lenore Appelhans said...

This is one I will have to buy. I can probably wait until it comes out in paperback though since my TBR pile is about to collapse and kill me...

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