Review: A La Carte, by Tanita S. Davis

I’m reading a fair bit of young adult literature at the moment.  There’s some very good stuff around.  So when an online friend reviewed a YA book that was full of food and cooking I thought, yep, that’s one for me, and promptly went out and bought it.

This book is a lot of fun.  It’s also utterly excruciating, because I identify quite strongly with the protagonist and her food-based methods of dealing with emotional issues, and I can understand completely why she does the things she does (who hasn’t done stupid and unwise things in the pursuit of teenage crushes?), but I can also see exactly the ways in which they aren’t going to end well, and it’s almost unbearable to watch and be unable to do anything!

This drove me absolutely batty. I suspect this is a sign of excellent writing.  It was interesting how much I identified with the adult perspective in this particular book; most YA novels invite you to identify with the children or teenagers who are their heroes and heroines.  Davis, without making Lainey’s mother into a viewpoint character, really does an excellent job of letting her readers see where she is coming from.  I wonder if I would have noticed this if I had read it as a teenager?

Incidentally, I haven’t read many books with African American protagonists, but I think this is the first one I’ve read in which the story wasn’t about race and prejudice.  Lainey is African American, her family and her cooking and culture come from a place that I would tentatively recognise as Southern (I’m not terribly good on American cultural nuances), and it’s all very much who she is, but her problems don’t arise from her skin colour or other people’s reaction to it.  They arise partly from her being the sort of person who focuses on one or two things and sort of self-isolates, but mostly from her really rotten taste in friends.

But enough about writing and characterisation – where is the food?!  Well, for one thing, Lainey’s mother owns a restaurant, but for an even more important thing, Lainey’s goal in life is to become a world famous chef with her own cooking show – Do you know how many African American female chefs there aren’t? And how many vegetarian chefs have their own shows?  The field is wide open for stardom – so she is constantly cooking, and constantly thinking about food (and narrating her kitchen experiments to an invisible studio audience, which I love – I admit to mentally writing these blog posts while cooking).

Lainey loves baking, and she loves vegetarian food, and she also worries about her weight, so she is always working on low-fat variations of recipes.  She brings cakes, biscuits, cheesecakes and scones to her Jazz choir, creates low fat desserts which occasionally make it onto her mother’s restaurant menu, and can spend two hours doing the grocery shopping with her mother – which of course they do at the market.  When she goes to stay with friends and finds their pantry full of tins and packets and hardly a fresh vegetable in sight, she is appalled (though she still manages to cook a ‘passable’ dinner and dessert)She and her mother have a little ritual of making / eating something sweet together after an argument, and she is definitely of the ‘food is love’ school of thinking when it comes to her relationships.

The book itself is full of recipes in Lainey’s writing (with notes from ‘Saint Julia’ – Child, that is), and unlike most recipes in novels, I really want to try these ones.  Lainey seems to share my culinary tastes, and I want to bake her ridiculously intense gingerbread, her grandmother’s lemon cake,  her zucchini latkes and her carrot macaroons.  And her gingerbread house, of course.  There really is food on every page.

I suppose I should mention a little about the plot, and not make it all about the food, but it’s actually quite difficult to talk about the plot without expressing the fact that I want to slap Lainey’s alleged best friend and crush.  I don’t know if that’s a spoiler or not, because I wanted to slap him by about page 20, if not earlier.  Really, he deserves it.  He’s pretty annoying even before he runs away from home and leaves Lainey and others holding assorted unsavoury bags (both metaphorically and literally), at which point aargh, I can’t believe she lets him get away with that, except that actually I really can, and did I mention that this is excruciating?  Much of the book is about Lainey coping with his departure and the assorted fallout from it, in between trying to finish her final year of school and find a place in a  good culinary school for next year… though her mother would really rather she went to university first, so that she has something to fall back on.  Another very large part of the book is about Lainey’s relationship with her mother, and I’m not sure I can describe that too well either, except to say that it feels like a very real one.

I’m making this book sound like a plot-free zone, I suspect, and that isn’t the case at all.  What it is, I think, is a coming-of-age book, with the protagonist’s main journey being one of figuring out who she is and, to a large extent, her own worth.  With a lot of cooking.  If you enjoy a good coming-of-age book with an intelligent and very food-focused main character, you will enjoy this.

But don’t blame me if you want to slap Simeon.

You can buy A La Carte from The Book Depository or from Amazon.

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2 responses to “Review: A La Carte, by Tanita S. Davis

  1. Thanks for the cool rec! It’s now on hold with the local library.

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