Readers who consider themselves foodies have been in luck recently, as authors have been producing an endless buffet featuring all things culinary. It has become a literary trend to read memoirs about discovering oneself through cooking. Food transformed into character has become a staple of contemporary fiction.
"TOMORROW THERE WILL BE APRICOTS"
By Jessica Soffer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($24).
At first glance, Jessica Soffer's debut novel, "Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots," appears to fall into this book-as-bon-bon category of literature, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is the work of an incredibly talented and promising new author. Ms. Soffer's writing -- simple in one phrase, elegant in the next -- sears across the page.
"He tried to remember how he'd once felt about her. They were the same people, weren't they? He believed in chemistry. He believed in love. And he believed that he still loved her; was determined to. More than anything, he wished they could start over. He imagined a crisp white canvas coming down from the sky and rolling out in front of them. He realized that in order to love more, he would have to feel less. This is what it meant to love, he thought. It required a certain degree of forgetting, of loss; it was like rushing into freezing water, jumping with your eyes closed into a dark hole, not making a sound."
Each character in the book struggles with love and loss, and Ms. Soffer writes passionately about their individual journeys of trying to accept both. There is eager-to-please Lorca, an eighth-grader who copes with emotional abandonment by secretly cutting herself.
Desperate to recapture her mother's love and approval, Lorca decides to learn how to make her mother's favorite meal, the Iraqi seafood dish masgouf. Her mother, a chef, once had masgouf while dining at a New York restaurant owned by Joseph and Victoria, a now childless husband and wife whose relationship shattered when Victoria gave up their only daughter for adoption against Joseph's will.
"On particularly bad days, I'd wonder if my only hope, his only hope, was to bring up our deepest secret, the one thing we never discussed, never mentioned. I didn't want to, dreaded it. It was desperate, a last resort, but we were at that point. If there was ever a time for candor, it was now. Forgiveness, now. Regrets. Confessions, concessions, empathy, desperation, and exaggeration: now. I wondered if everyone had a secret like this, something slightly wretched, bent and corroded with time, like a lost key that might not even unlock anything anymore. And if, in the end, it might be the only thing that mattered."
Each of the main characters -- Lorca, Joseph (who dies in the first few pages) and Victoria -- has a turn in narrating the story. This would be challenging enough for a first-time novelist, but Ms. Soffer's talent, ability and boldness shines through the storylines of adoption as experienced from a male perspective. Ms. Soffer's sensitive treatment of Lorca's emotional and physical pain through her cutting, the beauty and pain of love in its beginning and ending stages, and the need for connection to another.
"For the rest of his life, he realized he would have a relationship with something that was what it wasn't. It was what wasn't sleeping in his arms. It was what wasn't being breast-fed in a rocker in the middle of a night. It was what wasn't splashing and grinning and splashing and sneezing in the bathtub. It was what wasn't in framed photographs squished and happy between himself and Victoria. It was what wasn't reaching for his hand before crossing the street. It was what wasn't asking if murder was killing a bug. It was what wasn't going to school from their stoop in the morning, to school with a lunch box, to school in an ironed uniform, to school at a university with giant evergreen hedges and red bricks and books stacked a mile high, making this father so proud, so very proud, the proudest ever. He wondered how he could ever live with what wasn't, and harder still, how couldn't he?"
At times, "Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots" feels uneasy, like you're spying on the most personal emotional wreckage of a life. Hearts are breaking (or about to), and you want to reach through the pages to do anything you can to stop the hurting.
It's almost as if you're having dinner at your favorite neighborhood bistro, savoring each bite of your fantastic meal as the owners who have been married forever bicker loudly in the kitchen. They greeted you with huge smiles, and they'll send you off with the same. They're family. After a while, you know that's part of the flavor at this place.
You know you'll definitely be coming back for more.
Melissa M. Firman is a writer, editor and nonprofit professional who lives in Cranberry (firstname.lastname@example.org).