Earlier this year I read Stephen May’s Life! Death! Prizes! (review) a title that refers to protagonist Billy’s nickname for those trashy magazines they stock by the counters of supermarkets and newsagents, the ones filled with stories about bizarre diseases, disturbingly weird relationships and twins separated at birth, and which are typically sealed with plastic in order to hold in the free package of two minute noodles being used to lure in a shopper who’s on the fence about picking up the magazine…or a giant Freddo instead.
Billy, whose life has been derailed after the death of his mother, comments: “Every day I find stories sadder and more stupid than ours. It’s good. It helps. It means that I can tell myself that I’m lucky.”
And having read a couple of chick lit novels in a row, I’m beginning to wonder if this is exactly what this genre is all about. The last few I’ve read haven’t been about high-flying advertising execs stomping around town and causing hilarious havoc (that particular subset of chick lit is apparently extinct), but rather they’ve been about middling individuals living lives that can only make ours look, well, quite pleasant in comparison. Boasting as they do hideous mothers-in-law, cheating husbands, horrid children, public sex scandals, and inevitable job losses (this particular book contains all of these elements), they’re books that you’re meant to identify with by not identifying with them. You put them down and think, “well, thank bloody goodness my life’s nothing like that.”
The problem is that it’s an approach that does distance you from the book, and certainly from the characters, many of whom will elicit a shudder or at least a grimace when they sashay on to the page.
Debby Holt’s Recipe for Scandal suffers from this problem threefold in that it follows the lives of three woman, and three generations, of a family: those of Alberta Granger, and of Alberta’s mother and daughter. Despite being fairly close on the family tree, the three have relatively little to do with each other, so they sort of float around disconnectedly until a Certain Big Event causes them to reflect on their relationships with each other, and on their other personal and romantic relationships. The thing is, the event in question doesn’t occur until a good third of the way through the book, and the material preceding it feels aimless and without direction, focusing on dinner parties and a lengthy running list of characters who don’t actually end up playing that much of a role in the book.
At a talk I attended the other night, author and former radio host Ramona Koval mentioned reading Madame Bovary for a second time as an adult, and realising that when she’d first read it as a teenager, she’d missed something important: the opening chapter focused on Charles Bovary for a reason, and was meant to prime the reader to develop a certain picture of Charles that should be held in mind throughout the book. Authors use certain structures in order to communicate certain things to an audience, she said.
And yet, this doesn’t seem to hold true for Recipe for Scandal. The book just feels messy and diluted: there’s so much going on, and certainly at the beginning of the book, so much of it is inconsequential. Even the title is misleading, and along with the first chapter seems to suggest that we’re in for some sort of foodie shenanigans. Not so. Not at all. (Well, there’s one dessert-throwing incident, but that’s it.) So even though we do get plenty of over-the-top, tabloid-worthy drama, rather than feeling that, phew, at least my family’s shenanigans aren’t going to land them on the front page of the newspaper, I was so uninvested that I just shrugged it all off–of course, this might also have had something to do with the fact that the Certain Big Event is just so embarrassingly cliched.
Anyway, throughout the book I just couldn’t help but feel that things would have been improved if the focus had been on just one, or at most two, of the three women who take up most of the page time. Alberta is most certainly our protagonist, and the occasional jumps to see what her mother Philippa or daughter Hannah’s up to feel like they detract from rather than add to the story. The point of the book is that people often don’t see what’s going on under their noses, and don’t necessarily see their relationships as they truly are, and I felt that Holt missed an opportunity by pursuing these other points of view rather than showing them to us through Alberta’s eyes.
One element that I did enjoy, however, was Alberta’s difficult relationship with her long-term partner Tony, particularly after a potential new love interest arrives on the scene. I know it all sounds horribly overdone when stated like this, but Holt takes things in a direction that’s quite unexpected, and I found the way she resolved all of this worth slogging through the extraneous stuff about Hannah and Philippa and the cheating so-and-sos in their lives (it is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in a chick lit novel is in need of a woman on the side). Holt gives us an interesting take on a romantic relationship: one that was established years ago not out of passion and love but rather as a sort of mutually beneficial agreement. Obviously this all sounds very clinical, but throughout the book Alberta starts to reflect on what this relationship means to her, and whether she’s been erroneous in labelling her relationship as some sort of “agreement” rather than one of love.
Still, in all, I found Recipe for Scandal pretty much a paint-by-numbers sort of book, and one that’s not helped by the bloating of its many, many subplots and superfluous point-of-view characters. That said, I enjoyed the way that Holt mixed things up with Alberta and Tony’s relationship, and I have to say that yes, this one from time to time did indeed make me feel grateful that my strange and often embarrassing family at least isn’t fodder for newspaper journalists–there’s little chance of them turning up in a glossy magazine stapled to a packet of two minute noodles*.
*Yes, this sentence is deliberately ambiguous.
Rating: (not bad)
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Other books by Debby Holt: