Jan 5 2008
Dear Ms. Martin:
I read this on the heels of the Top Chef finale. While I am a decent cook, I am no chef but I love all things food related. The love of food makes this cooking oriented novel hit the right spot for me.
Vivi Robitaille has come to America to open her own bistro and live the American dream with her half-sister, Natalie, providing the funding and Vivi providing the food skills. Vivi is classically trained but door after door is closed to her in Paris because of her sex. I appreciated this touch as it is well known (and hotly debated at the Top Chef forums) that there is a bias toward male chefs.
She chooses to open this tiny bistro across the street from Dante’s Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Anthony Dante is the owner of the family restaurant and his brother is also a not so silent partner. Anthony and Vivi clash immediately with Anthony dismissing her cooking skills and Vivi bristling with anticipated rejection. Their courtship takes place through the exchange of signature dishes. The flirtation took the form sparring about who was the better chef.
Vivi had an endearing way of mangling English idioms which was obviously done for comedic relief but effectively because the misuse of the idioms made me smile. It may be a contrived way of getting a laugh, but some things – like a guy getting hit in the nuts – seems to have universal commercial appeal. I’m lowbrow like that.
I found that the story had a bit more man-lit appeal to it although the romance played an important, but quiet part. The story focused on changes in three central characters lives: Vivi, Anthony and Michael Dante, Anthony’s brother. Anthony is a widower who hasn’t really recovered from the loss of his beloved wife. Michael Dante was struggling with his forced retirement from hockey and his desire to live out future glory through his son who doesn’t really seem to love hockey like his dad would like.
One skill that I’ve always felt you’ve had is showing realistic courtship which often entails couples breaking up and getting back together. These are what I would term plausible adult romances. In this case, both Vivi and Anthony experience moments in the relationship when it is simply not right for them to be together. Of course, this produces hurt feelings on both sides, but the sense of realism and authenticity to the relationship lent itself to a more believable happy ever after ending.
The strength of this novel, as with all Martin novels, is the ability to sell the reality of the fiction. The characters and their problems are based on the ordinary commonplace problems that beset ordinary commonplace people and therefore the story and the struggles are common place: Michael’s problem with being a stay at home Dad; Vivi’s problem of balancing her sisters’ emotional problems with an uncertain romance; Anthony setting aside the love that he had for his deceased wife.
Toward the end, there was an extremely convenient bailout for Vivi’s problems and that brought down the believability factor for me. The novel also focuses more on the individual character arcs that are separate growths instead of moving in lockstop with one another, the romance does take a back seat on more than on occasion. Still, it’s a nice complement to the current slate of contemporary romances which often seem to rely on a suspense thread to carry it forward. No mystery here, just ordinary folks falling in love and learning to live with that love. B-