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The purpose of chick-lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal

Recipe for Scandal by Debbie Holt The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal

Earlier this year I read Stephen Mays Life! Death! Prizes! (review) a title that refers to protagonist Billys 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 whos on the fence about picking up the magazineor 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, Im beginning to wonder if this is exactly what this genre is all about. The last few Ive read havent been about high-flying advertising execs stomping around town and causing hilarious havoc (that particular subset of chick lit is apparently extinct), but rather theyve 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), theyre books that youre meant to identify with by not identifying with them. You put them down and think, well, thank bloody goodness my lifes nothing like that.

The problem is that its 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 Holts 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 Albertas 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 doesnt 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 dont 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 shed first read it as a teenager, shed 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 doesnt seem to hold true for Recipe for Scandal. The book just feels messy and diluted: theres 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 were in for some sort of foodie shenanigans. Not so. Not at all. (Well, theres one dessert-throwing incident, but thats it.) So even though we do get plenty of over-the-top, tabloid-worthy drama, rather than feeling that, phew, at least my familys shenanigans arent going to land them on the front page of the newspaper, I was so uninvested that I just shrugged it all offof 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 couldnt 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 Hannahs up to feel like they detract from rather than add to the story. The point of the book is that people often dont see whats going on under their noses, and dont 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 Albertas eyes.

One element that I did enjoy, however, was Albertas 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 thats 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 shes 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 thats 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 Tonys 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 isnt fodder for newspaper journaliststheres 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: star The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandalstar The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandalhalfstar The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandalblankstar The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandalblankstar The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal (not bad)

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Other books by Debby Holt:

Friends Lies and Alibis by Debby Holt The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal

The Ex Wifes Survival Guide by Debby Holt The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal

The Trouble with Marriage by Debby Holt The purpose of chick lit and Debby Holts Recipe for Scandal


  1. If a chick-lit book is witty and humorous, I will forgive it almost anything, but if none of the lines make me laugh, I usually dont bother to finish it anymore. Sounds like you could have put this one down a few chapters in and not missed much!

    • Stephanie /

      So true, Laurie! I think youve hit on my misgivings exactly: this one just lacked the warmth and charm that I expect from chick lit.

  2. I admit I prefer to read about women I can identify with. I dont think female characters always have to be nice, but if they are too out there, I find it distancing too. I think that why, although I think Sophie Kinsella is a very good writer, I never quite bonded with the Shopaholic. She was just a little too ditzy for me. If shed been my friend, I would have had to slap her.

    • Stephanie /

      Ha! I completely agree, Imelda. Flawed characters are fine (and expected), but I do find that in this genre their flaws can be taken to such extremes that its hard to connect with them. Ive only read one Kinsella book, but I do remember fearing for the protagonists ability to get by in the real world!

  3. I find that I prefer reading chick lit where things work out for the main characters, but Im a fan of fantasy, even if it is supposed to reflect real life. If I want to walk away from a reading feeling superior to the characters and sighing in relief that at least my life isnt that bad, I go to Its a guilty pleasure.

    • Stephanie /

      I definitely love some fun and frivolity in my chick lot, and to be fair this one does try to paint all of its mischievous goings-on in an amusing light. I see them as a sort of parody of everyday lifetheyre very much about larger than life characters and situations. But sometimes theres just so much going on, and its all just so outrageous that you want to stage an intervention! :)