Dear Ms. Usen:
I bought this book while it was on sale, the reviews convincing me that it would be a fresh contemporary read. It largely lived up to the positive reviews with some exceptions. In the past, I haven’t been overly interested in the chef hero even though I love the show, Top Chef. The setup in this story is that Marlene Bennet just wants casual flings and is excited to hear that casual fling king and famous chef, Joe Rafferty, is coming into town.
Marlene plans to enjoy Joe’s visit, both in the kitchen and out. Unfortunately, Joe is trying to put aside the flings and look for a serious relationship woman, just as his dying mother had requested.
The casual fling v. the woman you marry dynamic was an uncomfortable one in this book and I wasn’t quite sure what message was being sent. Joe’s internal mantra is to “not marry sluts” and he puts Marlene in that category. Yet, given that Joe ends up with Marlene, I vacillated back and forth wondering if it was an empowerment of female sexuality because the heroine was a woman who enjoyed sex and had multiple partners or an extreme version of slut shaming.
Joe is the same side of the coin and acknowledges his own hypocrisy. Plus, he enjoys her sexual surety. When, out of hurt, he declares that she is just a piece of ass to his father, his father admonishes him telling him that the measure of a woman isn’t what she does in bed (although that is a bonus). I felt like the story wanted to address the issue but wasn’t clear enough and thus failed on that level.
Joe and Marlene spar in the kitchen and then have to deal with a series of sabotages such as salt instead of sugar on the creme brulee or a stove that was unplugged or grease catchers were caked with oil. Olivia, the owner, seems oblivious to it all.
Marlene is a great character. She likes having casual affairs and for the most part, people around her don’t judge her for it. Not her boss and best friend, the owner of the restaurant, and not the bartender who has watched her engage in a series of pick ups. Marlene loves to cook but she hates her best friend’s husband and left the hot line to work in the bakeshop, as far away from the best friend’s husband as possible. Marlene has a complicated relationship with her mother. They clearly love each other but the mother’s desire to have a man in her life at all times has lead Marlene to believe that permanent relationships aren’t healthy.
Her best friend, Olivia, isn’t much of a friend. This was a source of major disappointment in the book. I couldn’t tell why Marlene considered Olivia her best friend. Olivia didn’t appreciate Marlene’s talents and never considered Marlene as the head chef replacement in her restaurant. “But did Olivia give Marly her old job back? Nope, she sure didn’t. Instead, she called her buddy Joe in to pinch-hit, and then she put an ad in the fucking paper. “ Marlene never went to Culinary Arts school, like Joe or Olivia. She learned to cook and bake at the hand of Olivia’s grandmother and parents.
The action in the kitchen is authentic and even, at times, exciting. You can clearly tell that Marlene and Joe love food and creating food. The kitchen comes alive in the book and what I think worked well is that the cooking paragraphs are interspersed with their attraction for each other and their inborn rivalry to out do one another so that each attempt to get food on a plate is like a mini competition.
Joe was the less interesting character for me. His complicated belief system about women and his hypocrisy made it difficult for me to enjoy him fully. Was the story about him putting aside his judgments about the “right” kind of woman to marry? I guess so but I wasn’t completely convinced. I did appreciate how he stood up for Marlene, particularly to Olivia.
I’m intrigued enough to read another book but the next one is about Olivia and she really came off poor in this book. I might wait until book 3. C+