Well, I for one am convinced: Ruth Reichl can write fiction. I have read 2 of her memoirs and enjoyed them immensely, but wasn’t sure how she would shake out as a novelist – until now.
The story: Billie Breslin drops out of college in California and takes a poorly-paid job as an assistant to the editor of the food magazine Delicious in New York City. We know from the beginning that her departure from college and her move away from her family is a reaction to some sort of traumatic family event, but Billie is a very private person and we only learn bit by bit from her conversations with others what that event was and how it connects with her cooking-induced panic attacks.
Billie has an incredible palate, and can identify all of the ingredients in a dish just by tasting a few bites. We learn that she and her older sister Genie had a cake business together as children, but that they stopped baking when they went to college. Billie refuses to say more on this subject, and now refuses to cook at all. Billie is convinced that her sister is perfect – the prettiest, the smartest, the best at everything, and that she is just the kid sister sidekick – but she doesn’t seem to resent this role. She writes emails to her sister throughout the novel saying how much she loves and misses her, but refuses all invitations from her aunt and her father to visit home.
Billie’s amazing palate lands her a side job at a local store run by the Fontanari family, who have never had an employee from outside their family and practically adopt her. She gets her big break at the magazine when she is allowed to write an article about Fontanari’s, and then, just as she is getting other writing assignments, disaster strikes. Delicious is shut down, and only Billie is retained as an employee, to answer letters and honor the Delicious Recipe Guarantee. Alone in an deserted office, Billie toils on, lonely – until a coworker, Sammy, returns from his travels to clean his office and discovers a secret room in the locked library. In it, they find some letters written to James Beard by a young girl throughout World War II. The letters spark an obsession, and Billie (with Sammy’s help) hunts them down one after the other. Why were the letters hidden in the secret room? Who was the mysterious librarian who left the cryptic clues in the card catalog to find them, and why? What happened to the letter writer and her missing-in-action father? While Billie and Sammy solve these mysteries, we meet more members of Billie’s family, watch Billie fall in love with a fellow foodie and finally piece together what caused her to leave her family and move east.
This book had all of the things I loved from Reichl’s nonfiction: rich, evocative descriptions of food that make you want whatever it is (even if you don’t like that particular food), rhapsodic odes to life in New York City, and spot-on characterizations of quirky, creative people who are obsessively in love with their work. I think I gained 5 pounds just reading it, and now I crave a trip to Manhattan so badly I might sell an organ to get there. If you like Reichl’s nonfiction, give it a try. If you like those sorts of novels that let you figure out what’s going on by dangling hints in your path, you’ll like it. Librarians, of course, will love it for the coded, bizarre subject headings dreamed up by the mysterious librarian to catalog the letters. This librarian was NOT seeking to save the time of the user, or to make the information easily accessible! But that’s what makes it fun.