Monday, October 13, 2008

Plotless Entertaining Disasters Saved By Narrator's Poignant Musings

(Image from Amazon)

If you're looking for a breezy beach read, you're not going to find it in Entertaining Disasters by Nancy Spiller. In fact, you won't find a lot of things in this book. No thrills, no action, no adventure, no romance, no real plot. However, if you don't mind a slower pace, a little melancholy and a lot of introspection, then this book should be in your hands. It won't demand a lot of your time or keep you up at night flipping pages, but its sharp observations on life will make you pause. And think. And identify. And laugh. And possibly cry.

The book features an unnamed foodie, who writes about her elaborate, celebrity-studded dinner parties for L.A.'s culinary magazines. In her articles, she describes the food she prepares, the guests she entertains, and the memories she made baking with her mother. Her expertise speaks for itself. So, why does an upcoming dinner party with a well-known food editor have her quaking in her boots? The truth is, she hasn't entertained in over a decade. Her mouth-watering menus have been prepared only in her head, her guests invented in her imagination. One upon a time, she did entertain, but now, the thought makes her tremble. Paranoia has her questioning everything - will anyone show up for the party? What will she talk about with them? Will her guests like her food? Will they be bored to tears? Can she find a good excuse to cancel? Her grandmother has only died twice and she hasn't come down with a good flu lately ...

As our heroine obsesses about the party, she contemplates the terror that paralyzes her in social situations. She muses over her disfuctional family, her less-than-passionate marriage, her culinary education, and the crushing effort that goes into planning a real, live dinner party.

Although the book drags under details only hard-core foodies will find interesting, it's buoyed by the authenticity of the narrator's voice. The novel lacks swift pacing, careful plotting and lively dialogue, but our heroine will entrance you with her vulnerability. Her paranoid, sarcastic views on life keep the book interesting, while her true memories of childhood make it absolutely riveting. Since the narrator's sharp, poignant musings really make the book, I offer you a sample of her thoughts*:

On family: There isn't a place for a family like ours in the grand scheme of American dreams, and no one, least of all us, knows how to respond to it.

Sometimes I fear that if I stop mourning its loss, this family will cease to exist altogether. That my sorrow is the only thing keeping it alive. Or possibly that this family never existed at all.

On dining together: At this point in the process it invariably dawned on me that the real hunger in all of this was not merely for food, but for the company of others. When none of us seemed to have time for anything, including a sit-down, well-prepared meal, and everyone appeared trapped in a solo chase after things we were not even sure existed, companionship and community could be the first things cut from the to-do list. The thought of a dinner amongst friends took on the backlit glow of a Platonic ideal.

On the rat-race: I wasn't trying to make this a business evening, but I wasn't an idiot, either, and when you went to this much effort in Los Angeles, it had better, like the freeways, lead somewhere. That's why they called it the City of Angles. Most of the population was running on a biofuel based on fear-borne angst, and it took too much of the stuff to not turn every event into a golden on-ramp. Marisa would be mine that night.

You get the picture. Come January, you'll definitely want to get the book.

Grade: B+

*Quoting from an ARC is a big no-no for reviewers, so I have to justify my actions by saying that (1) I didn't think you could really get the essence of the book without quotes, (2) I can't check the text of the ARC against a final copy, because those won't be available until January, and (3) Spiller's publicist never emailed me back to verify the quotes. So, there. I'm safe, right?

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