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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Aftertaste - a food-related book review

Iwas two-thirds through reading Aftertaste before I realized it was fiction and not a memoir, so clearly and convincingly is it written. Mira Renaldi tells her story of divorce, losing her previous life and finding a new one, in her own voice and does so in a compelling way. She and her husband, Jake, own Grappa, a trendy New York trattatoria and she thinks life is perfect until she find him en flagrante delicto in the restaurant office with the maitresse (a  term I'd never heard for a female matire d'). Enraged, Mira pulls huge handful of hair out of the woman's head and is ordered to anger management therapy. Things go from bad to worse as Mira struggles to raise her infant Chloe, maintain her place in the restaurant, and control her anger--she's particularly bad at the latter and eventually moves home to Pittsburgh to lick her wounds, even though, to her dismay, her long-widowed father appears to have a new woman in his life. There she gradually gets her feet under her, buys a condo, writes a food column for the newspaper, takes Chloe to a gym class, makes friends and begins to build a new world for herself and Chloe. Then comes an amazing opportunity, a chance to move back to New York, take control of Grappa, and save it when it appears to be sinking. Will she or won't she is a big part of this novel, but there is much more to it than that.
As a woman whose husband left her with small children for another woman, I can relate to Mira's situation--but not to her anger. I was angry sure, but Mira's anger is almost irrational and the way she comes to grips with building a new life is an absorbing tale, including the way she comes to accept her father's lover. We all have to move on from abandonment and betrayal, but Mira really has a hard time with it.
Besides chronicling Mira's emotional ups and downs and eventual growth, Aftertaste gives you a clear picture, unvarnished, of the life of a chef. A friend said to me, "I know that's a world you'd love to inhabit, but I can't see it," and I had to reply truthfully that it's a world I would have liked to inhabit when I was thirty but not now. I don't have the energy or the stamina. I appreciate and understand however that cooking, for Mira, is much more than making the best pasta. It's about fulfillment and nourishing others and, yes, garnering praise for your efforts. But it's also about being exhuasted, having no time for yourself, let alone your child. It's a double-edged knife, out of the set of knives precious to each chef.
The subtitle calls this a novel in five parts: I'd call it a three-act play. There's the volatile time in New York, the interlude in Pittsburgh, and the conclusion with the chance at Grappa as the climactic moment. The resolution? You'll have to find that for  yourselves. No spoilers here except to say that echoes of this novel/memoir will stay with me for a long time. An exceptional book.
Yes, there are recipes in the back, including Jake's cassoulet with which he tries to seduce Mira late in the book.
Oh, and the author isn't really the flawed narrator, Mira Renaldi. It's Meredith Miteli.

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