What a delight! Give yourself time to savor this bittersweet, funny, snarky immigrant tale, all 501 pages. We meet Lillian Dunkle, née Malka Treynovsky, as her family prepares to flee pogrom-afflicted Russia in 1913. Crippled by a traffic accident, abandoned by her shyster father and her crazy mother, little Malka is taken in by an Italian family in the ice cream trade, and ice cream becomes her guiding star. Sounds schmaltzy? Not at all; this is some of the finest historical writing I’ve read. Feisty, funny, snarky Malka/Lillian is driven by yearning for family, chisel-sharp ambition, and a wounded heart. We follow her from her New York Jewish ghetto to fortune and fame as the Ice Cream Queen of America and beyond, into her feisty but very complicated old age. A mistress of historical fiction, Gilman plops us right down beside Lillian to experience most of the twentieth century though her eyes, and what a ride it is! Lillian is, at times, not a very nice person, but I still rooted for her as she went after those who’d wronged her along the way. As a bonus, I also leaned quite the arsenal of Yiddish expressions. Such naches I had from this book!
The novel I’m currently shopping around to literary agents is best described as women’s fiction, a genre I haven’t read as widely as I should. I’m working (well, it’s fun, really) to remedy that. “What is women’s fiction? you ask. “Don’t you mean romance novels?”
Women’s fiction may contain romantic elements, as can sci-fi, fantasy, horror–just about any genre you can name. But the central focus of women’s fiction is women’s personal growth, transformation, and relationships–often family relationships or friendships. There is not necessarily a “happy-ever-after” ending, but there will be a life-affirming message in there somewhere. Chick lit fits nicely into this category but, thank goodness, the protagonist need not be young, chic, and living in NYC for a novel to qualify as women’s literature.
Jennifer Weiner’s name comes up on several lists of recommended authors of women’s fiction. This is the first of her novels I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Weiner’s protagonist is a very sympathetic character–mother of a difficult child, wife of an indifferent husband, daughter of a helpless mother and a father with dementia, and author of a wildly popular blog. I squirmed and winced and even teared up a bit as I watched her life unravel due to her addiction to painkillers. Weiner gives us an insiders view of rehab–very gritty and frustrating. Though the subject matter is grim, Weiner writes with humor and touching insight. Read this!
Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste
This book is a delight for foodies and Francophiles. The grand-nephew of eminent American food writer M.F.K. Fischer writes about a winter she spent in Provence in the company of Julia child, James Beard, and other influential food writers. Barr uses the extensive letters and journals of the participants, as well as interviews with a few who are still living, to reconstruct this period in which the American cooking scene took a new direction–away from bland convenience foods and stiff, complicated formality and toward freshness, simplicity, and fusion. I loved Barr’s descriptions of Provencal towns and cities, and especially of the meals prepared and shared there. If you’ve enjoyed the writings of Child and Fischer, you’ll love this.
Continuing my education in the genre of women’s fiction:
I absolutely loved this book. Antalek takes us from adolescence through early adulthood and beyond in the lives of a group of friends. Her tightest focus is on Sam, Suzie and Bella, but we also get to know the rest of their group, along with many of their parents. It’s impossible not to care deeply about these three characters as they scrabble over the knee-skinning boulders of messed-up families, broken relationships, coming apart and together again. Antalek takes us through the trials of teenaged lust, misunderstanding, ambition, lack thereof, thwarted ambition, unused talents, sibling love/rivalry, addiction, and parental decline: the ordinary stuff of which life is made, and all of it deeply resonant without lapsing into schmaltz. An outstanding book.
(Just trying out the copy-this-review-to-my-blog feature of Goodreads.)
The novel I’m currently working on would be best described as women’s fiction, so I’m reading lots of same to learn about the genre. I found Elizabeth Buchan on a must-read list of women’s fiction authors. The recommended book, Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, wasn’t available in my library, so I picked up this one, and I’m glad I did. Buchan handles smoothly the transition from POV to POV in this tale of a British family’s near dissolution, making each character at least partly sympathetic–a difficult task in the case of the critical, crotchety grandmother. All members of this family are deeply flawed, but I found myself rooting for all of them…well, perhaps not one, but I was deeply curious about what would happen to her. An engrossing read for anyone who enjoys a relationship-centered tale.