The Power of the Comfort Read
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In this year’s Top Chef, a Bravo Reality cooking show, one of the challenges was to create the last supper for a number of culinary dignities. To a (wo)man, each chef requested a simple, classic dish. Wiley Dufrense, one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy (mixing chemistry and cooking), is a lover of eggs. He requested eggs benedict. Jacques Pepin whose book La Technique is part of fundamental teaching for French cuisine, requested roast squab and peas. Lidia Bastianich wanted roast chicken and potatoes. You get the idea. At least one recapper of the episode noted how boring the “last supper” requests were.
Comfort food is not exciting. It’s rarely innovative, but it touches something at the core of a person and resonates so strongly that the person returns to that dish, that food time and again. And, as seen in the Top Chef episode, comfort food done right takes skill and an understanding of what comprises those seemingly simple dishes.
Everyone that I have spoken with who has read Smooth Talking Stranger, Lisa Kleypas’ March 31, 2009, release, has essentially said the same thing. This book is a comfort read. When I wrote to Ms. Kleypas to tell her that we were going to run a promotion for the book, I explained how greatly I enjoyed the story and how it was a comfort read for me. I then felt compelled to re-email her, before she even responded, to tell her that I meant no insult by saying that it was a “comfort” read. At the time, I wasn’t able to articulate myself very well (probably as a result of staying up too late reading the book).
But calling a book or a meal a comfort is really a high compliment. True, it means that it is something that isn’t innovative or cutting edge but conversely it means that it is a story that you’ll want to revisit in times when you need comfort. In some sense, calling a book a comfort read is one of the highest compliments that you can pay a book. It means that in a reader’s low points, at a time she needs a pick me up, when she can’t think of anything else to read, she turns to this book, by this author.
The comfort reads are the quiet heroes in a reader’s library. They take standard elements and fashion them in a way that are once relatable and moving. They don’t rely on high concepts, paranormal creatures, or even a serial killer to maintain a romance reader’s interest. Instead, a romance book comfort read relies on the characters and their struggle to obtain a happy ending to carry the entire story.
In Smooth Talking Stranger, Lisa Kleypas introduces the reader to Ella Varner, a girl with a recognizable romance background, throws in one secret baby, and stirs it up with a hot alpha man and convinces at least this reader that this is the best Kleypas book ever.
Ella Varner grew up with a very bad mother, one who is more interested still today, in making connections with the opposite sex than her own daughters. Ella has managed, through some therapy, to escape the trap of her childhood, get a job and what seems like a decent boyfriend. Her sister, however, has not. Drifting from man to man, Ella’s sister, has ended up pregnant and unable to care for her infant. She dumps the infant on Ella’s door and heads for rehab. Ella has to figure out who the daddy is and care for the infant until such time as her sister gets out of rehab. One of the prospects is Jack Travis, a millionaire playboy. (see, it is totally stock elements of romance store 101).
Jack denies that he is the father.
“The Travis name inspires a lot of women to notice a likeness between me and their fatherless children. But it’s not possible for two reasons. First, I never have sex without holstering the gun.”
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, I wanted to smile at the phrase. “You’re referring to a condom? That method of protection has an average failure rate of fifteen percent.”
“Thank you, professor. But I’m still not the father.”
But Jack is intrigued by Ella and arranges to have her stay in one of the Travis apartments while she is in Houston looking for the baby’s daddy. And he arranges that he is there for Ella whenever she needs someone. And he just happens to fall hard for her.
Ella, though, has a perfectly nice boyfriend. Dane is not interested in being a father and in a very nice way tells Ella that she can come back to their joint cohabitation but not with the baby. Initially that’s what Ella wants too but as she spends more time with Luke, she becomes more attached to him and it becomes less about the search for Luke’s father than figuring out a way to give Luke back to his mom without tearing out her own heart.
Jack himself doesn’t have much character growth in the story other than becoming less of a millionaire playboy and more of the millionaire husband and father material. But he plays a sort of straight man to Ella’s neuroticism. (although Jack has his own faults. In one of my favorite scenes, Jack admits that his alphaness might be mistaken for craziness.)
Jack caught my wrist, pulling my caressing hand away from his face, and he skewered me with a wrathful stare. “Damn it.” He hauled me into his arms and held me close, breathing hard. “I’ve got about ten things I want to say to you right now. But at least nine of them would make me sound like a psycho.”
In spite of the seriousness of the situation, I nearly smiled. “What’s the tenth thing?” I asked his shirtfront.
He paused, considering it. “Never mind,” he grumbled. “That one would make me sound like a psycho, too.”
I know, cerebrally, that there are flaws in this story. Ella transfers her affections from Dane to Jack in fairly quick order and doesn’t really learn the ability to stand alone. Jack’s character is a tad too recognizable without much nuance. The ending relies on a bit of an unnecessary contrivance to force a resolution of the characters’ feelings for each other. However, none of those flaws make any difference to me.
In my second, hamfisted email to Lisa Kleypas, I tried earnestly to explain that a comfort read is really a compliment. I ended the email with the comment that it was a book I know I would read time and again. It reminds me of the ubiquitous slogan of Snoopy: Happiness is a warm puppy.
Tell me what your favorite comfort read is. I would love to know what you love to read when you need a pick me up; what you turn to when you are having a reading roadblock; whether there was a book that ever got you through a difficult time period. Comfort readers unite!