Elizabeth is the chief chef in a New York restaurant, but something has been “off” in her cooking lately, and she can’t quite put her finger on the problem. The restaurant owner decides to bring in a celebrity chef to increase excitement, traffic, and sales. Discouraged, Elizabeth suddenly decides to go visit her sister, Jane, in Seattle.
She’s been avoiding Jane for a number of reasons. When their mother died from cancer, instead of coming together to comfort each other, the family withdrew and splintered. Now Jane is battling her own cancer, and Elizabeth didn’t feel she could face it until now. In the first few minutes after Elizabeth arrives at Jane’s house, it’s clear that there is more to the problems in their relationship than different ways of handling grief. Their attempts to reconnect are something like one step forward and two backward as they make attempts and then fall back into old patterns.
Jane’s appetite has been affected by her treatment, and Lizzy makes it her mission to experiment with different foods and combinations to come up with something Jane can eat, but at first it’s more about Elizabeth recapturing her spark and fire for cooking and needing a victory in that department than it really is about Jane.
Dear Mr. Knightley was replete with quotes and allusions to classic literature, specifically Jane Austen’s. This book doesn’t have quite as many, but it still has plenty. Elizabeth’s mother had loved all things Jane Austen and had especially loved having Elizabeth read Austen’s novels to her when she wasn’t feeling well: consequently, Elizabeth has been avoiding them in her grief. Yet Jane likes the same reading while receiving her chemo treatments, so Elizabeth rediscovers them by reading to Jane and learns to enjoy them again despite the connection with her mom’s illness. Apparently Elizabeth never forgets a food reference in the books she reads, and as she cooks for Jane and then another cancer patient, finding out what books they like is a part of discovering their tastes and preferences. It was fun to read food references from Dickens, Hemingway, Austen, and even The Wind in the Willows.
Though the girls were named after the main characters in Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie felt they
…portrayed too intimidating a relationship for me — always had. Lizzy and Jane Bennet understood each other, championed each other without fail, and possessed an unbreakable bond. Even Darcy could not find fault in their relationship or conduct — and he could find fault with most things. But Elinor and Marianne [from Sense and Sensibility]? They had more conflict, rubbed more, barked more…They felt more real, more flawed, and yet their bond was as strong, as enduring, and as beautiful (pp. 96-97).
The faith element in the book is not heavy-handed: Elizabeth had buried what she had known, like so many other things, after her mom’s death, but during this time she rediscovers and renews her faith.
There were a few thoughts or discoveries about food that spoke to me as well. Even though I was a Home Economics major, I was never into gourmet cooking, so a lot of the spices and pairings Elizabeth uses are totally foreign to me (cinnamon in tomato-based dishes? Chili powder in chocolate? Isn’t that backwards? 🙂 ) In fact, my worst ever report card grade in college was in my Food Prep class (blush!) But somehow my family has survived my cooking for 35 years and even seems to like it pretty well most of the time. 🙂 (My main problem wasn’t preparing food so much as it was not managing my time well and not getting assignments in on time.) A lot of times, actually, I wish cooking was not a main part of my job, but on the other hand I don’t think I’d really enjoy other people doing the cooking all the time. At any rate, these quotes reminded me that preparing food is not just about food:
[Mom] wasn’t a good cook; she was a loving cook (p. 110).
Great writers and my mom never used food as an object: instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships. Mom’s cooking fed body and soul (p. 111).
“Mrs. Conner is sad and she hurts and it’s spring. The orange cake will not only show we care, it’ll bring sunshine and spring to her dinner tonight. She needs that.”
“It’s just a cake.”
“It’s never just a cake, Lizzy” (p. 111).
“You’re creating more than a meal; you’re creating sustenance and meeting needs that are way beyond nutritional” (p. 139).
It’s never about the food — it’s about what the food becomes, in the hands of the giver and the recipient (p. 172).
I really enjoyed the story, the food references, the literary allusions, and especially the characters. They’re flawed but realistic (even though most people I know don’t go at each other like they do: our family tends to retreat and get quiet when angry). I enjoyed how each of them grew in some way.
I did not like one reference to a symptom of Jane’s that wasn’t overt – I don’t know if everyone would even catch it – but it was a little TMI. Would a cancer patient experience it, and would two sisters talk about it in the privacy of their own home? Yes, but still…it was mentioned in a humorous way that wasn’t really necessary to the story and had me thinking, “Did she really just allude to what I think she alluded to?” Another blot in the book, in my opinion, was the use of a word that’s common today and a synonym for gutsy, but refers to male anatomy. Jarring and unnecessary. I mention these things not only because I feel strongly about them but also because I know many of you would want to be forewarned. By the world’s standards, they’re minor, but Christians are held to a higher standard. These have caused my bright, shiny, high regard for Reay to dim just a bit, and I so hope she’s not going further that direction in future books, but I think the story overall is a worthy one.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)