REVIEW: Reservations for Two by Jennifer Lohmann
Dear Ms. Lohmann:
(Dabney’s disclaimer: I know Jennifer and occasionally attend a book club she runs.)
I’d wanted to read this book for quite some time. Jennifer Lohmann entered Harlequin’s “So You Think You Can Write” contest in 2011 and was offered a contract. I’d met Jennifer earlier in that year when I interviewed her about being chosen as RWA’s Librarian of the Year. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Jennifer through a Romance Novels book club she runs at the library where she works. When I heard she was publishing a romance of her own, I asked for a copy. I was hoping I liked the book and am pleased to say I do. It’s not perfect but it’s got winning leads, an interesting conundrum, and a wonderfully clear sense of place.
Tilly Milek is living her dream: just a few years out of cooking school, she’s opened a restaurant of her own in her hometown of Chicago. The restaurant, a gourmet Polish place called Babka, is just getting established when, much to Tilly’s fury, Chicago’s most influential restaurant critic, an anonymous blogger with the moniker The Eater, writes a scathingly negative review of it. He writes that, the night he and his party were there–and Tilly and her staff have no idea who they were–a stray cat and a diner’s dog got into a fight on the restaurant floor. That, however, was not his biggest problem; he claims the food at his table was oversalted, “each dish he had ordered was like a salt lick.” Tilly is sure he’s lying or wrong or something for the food from her kitchen is always perfect. Furthermore, the Eater has broken a cardinal rule of restaurant reviewing -he’s only been to Babka’s once. Thanks to this jerk, she fumes, Tilly’s dream is about to tank.
The Eater is a guy named Dan Meier. Dan comes from an uber-wealthy family (“Meier Means Dairy.”) that he has deliberately chosen not to work for. He and three of his friends from college work together on their popular blog, CarpeChicago, and Dan’s made quite a name for himself as a food critic. He considers himself an ethical critic and is defensive when his friends tell him his review was unfair. One thing he’s sure of: no critic worth his sea salt ever questions his reviews. But Dan’s ethics–and his conviction that Tilly’s place serves poorly prepared food–are put to the test when he meets Tilly (at first he doesn’t know who she is) the Saturday after his review at Chicago’s huge food festival, Taste of Chicago.
Dan falls for Tilly almost immediately. She’s an unusual and intriguing woman and he can’t stay away from her. As he pursues her, he jiggles his ethics, telling himself that he isn’t really doing anything wrong. He debates with himself constantly which leads to something I’ve noticed happening more and more in contemporary romance: the Oprahfication of exploring a character’s psyche. This trend doesn’t do much for me. I tend to zone out when there is sentence after sentence of “here’s what I’m thinking and why.” I like Dan; I especially liked that he’s not making the best choices in the first half of the novel. His behavior is fairly crappy–he doesn’t tell Tilly who he really is which creates a huge power imbalance in their relationship–and he knows it. I enjoyed watching him first fail and then, with great effort, begin to succeed at not being so self-centered; I would have enjoyed this even more had I heard less about it as it plays out in Dan’s head.
Tilly is a nifty heroine. She’s incredibly driven and takes her responsibilities in life–her restaurant, her employees, her family (I really like her family.)–very seriously. So seriously, in fact, she’s turned into all-work-and-no play Tilly. It’s clear she needs some fun in her life. When she meets Dan–before she knows he’s the Eater–he makes her feel fabulous. Tilly is admirable and easy to root for. She never lets her desire for Dan compromise her dreams or her sense of what’s right. Even when the future of Babka seems bleak, Tilly soldiers on, cooking amazing food, marshaling her staff and her resources. Plus, I love her bright blue hair. (It’s irritating that Harlequin put a brunette on the cover.)
Though she had stopped being self-conscious about her hair all the time, she had attracted a different type of male attention since the change to blue—the two-eyebrow-piercings-tongue-stud-with-a-tattooist-named-Butter type of men who expected her to buy fetish shoes at the Alley.
Men seemed to think she was wild, when in reality she was a thirty-year-old woman stuck with a bet she had made when she was eighteen.
Tilly and Dan as a couple felt read to me. Their relationship evolved slowly–they both have full lives apart from each other–and I believed in the ways they fell in love. One of my favorite scenes between them takes place right before Dan repairs the clogged pot sink in her kitchen.
Dan was waiting by the front door when she came down the stairs, a large toolbox in his hand. He was dressed in a pair of old cargo shorts and an olive T-shirt, and she could see he had an athletic shape, with strong arms, powerful legs and a muscled chest. Tilly didn’t need any imagination to picture the flat stomach or the ridges of muscle hidden under his clothing.
She stopped on the stairs and swallowed. Dan looked like a page out of a man-of-the-month calendar—large, masculine and ready to come to a woman’s aid.
Is he going to kiss me again?
Hell, I’m a modern woman. Am I going to kiss him?
The thought of another kiss—and the possibility of more—made her feel as if she were standing in front of the hot stove on the sauté line in July in Miami.
She was staring, openly, blatantly staring. How embarrassing. For all she knew, she was drooling, too. It would be the perfect story to tell Renia—a gorgeous man agreed to help her repair her sink and she rewarded him with drool. She shut her gaping mouth and searched her brain for something clever.
“You look better than my plumber.” Not clever at all.
Didn’t cover up the drooling. Shoot.
“You look better than my plumber, too.”
Ms. Lohmann does an exceptional job of creating a sense of place in this book. Chicago is, well, Chicago. She also presents cooking and the restaurant world with pin point accuracy. This sense of place makes Reservations for Two an interesting and educational read. I finished this book happily knowing far more about Polish cuisine than I did when I began it.
I did struggle some with the pacing in this book. Part of my problem stemmed from all the internal chitter-chatter and part came from the plot. I liked the plot, but I felt the story would have been stronger had Ms. Lohmann been sparser in her prose. The novel is just over 300 pages; I think it could lose about fifty of those and be a more compelling read.
Overall, I enjoyed Reservations for Two. There’s an interesting mystery as well as the whole “How does Dan undo his bad review” storyline. The novel feels current and viable; the leads are likeable. The HEA is blessedly proposal and babies free. I give the book a B.
Its a funny thing, but I can’t read a romance if I don’t respect what the guy does for a living. This guy sounds like a spoiled rich brat whose never had a real job and runs a blog dedicated to destroying others’ livelihoods. Ugh. Not saying every guy has to be s Navy Seal or something, but when paired with a heroine whose job is interesting, time consuming, and provides real work for others….just saying, that in a contemporary, this wouldn’t work for me. So thanks for the review, but this doesn’t dound interesting.
I’m a little hung up on the bad review thing. It’s the thing that first gave me pause when I heard about this book. And I’m still sitting there. I’d like to read it – as I just love Chicago and restaurant romances – but while I’d like to believe that Dan’s an ethical reviewer, it’s not jiving with the whole bad review that he gave. And if I can’t believe that he IS an ethical reviewer then I’m completely stuck on not liking him.
Which leaves me not reading this.
@mari: @Angela: Well, he is kinda a jerk in the first half of the book. I liked that actually. It worked for me in part because his redemption in the second half of the book is so believable.
Honestly, I think you could sell me on any book, even some weird fantasy with its own language.
I don’t mind jerk heroes when I know there is genuine redemption in change in the character and from the review, that seems to be the case with Dan.
I like the sound of this one. I wonder if I’m allowed to buy it here…
A Meet Cute that takes place at the Taste of Chicago? Sold!
I really wanted to like this book. The Chicago setting is great and the restaurant background is much more realistically depicted than in many books (where the primary research appears to have been chef tell-alls and tv shows). But I just could not get comfortable with Dan. It’s one thing to be an asshat, it’s another to be an immature, unprofessional asshat who blames everyone else for the kind of person he is. And even his Grand Gesture at the end was unsatisfying; if I want to see a hero wave his wad o’ cash around to solve a problem, I’ll read a Presents.
I did like Tilly and her family, and I liked Dan’s sister. And his friends. OK, I pretty much liked everyone except Dan. But wishing the hero isn’t the hero is kind of fatal in a romance.
The reasons Dan worked for me as a hero, although I wanted to slap him at times, were the way Jennifer works his backstory, and the way he gradually comes to the conclusion that he’s acting like a jerk. At first I was afraid his stubbornness was simply an excuse for a story conflict, but getting to know his family gave his actions weight. Dan’s development as a character was one of my favorite parts of the book. His change from “I’m right” to “I’m a jerk” isn’t easy or sudden, and that makes it believable. Overall he’s a nice guy and I understood why Tilly fell for him. I also liked that the relationship between the two was believable, with all it’s mixed emotions. Rarely are new relationships straight forward. Theirs wasn’t all about insta-attraction and Jennifer does a great job of convincing me they make a good solid couple.
I agree with so much of this review, particularly about the excessive internal dialogue. But in reading the comments, I wanted to defend Dan (which is funny, because I was pretty mad at him for much of the book). Lohmann did a good job of depicting a man in denial, I thought, and that internal dialogue was key to me liking Dan. Also, he suffers for his mistake, repeatedly. My favourite secondary character was definitely his friend Mike. I really hope he gets his own book at some point.
I find it interesting that one commenter got the impression that Dan is a playboy – from the description, it could seem that way for sure. And yes, he’s wealthy, but that could have been stripped from the book without significant impact. Tilly and Dan are a couple that I might actually know, very ordinary, who meet and fall in love amidst extraordinary circumstances. I found it a refreshing read between billionaire tales.
I really want to like this book. I’m about a third into it and it’s slow going for me. I’m trying to push on at least until the halfway mark, when Dan becomes less unlikeable, but it’s not working well for me so far.