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All this time she had thought that the most important thing worth having in New York was access — to power, money, fame. What she hadn’t realized until this morning was that you could have something even more valuable: information.

Especially when it was someone else’s secret.

(from The Spare Wife, page 144)

In Alex Witchel’s The Spare Wife, the title refers to Ponce Morris, a model who married into money, became a pro bono attorney, and inherited her ex-husband’s fortune when he died. Since the end of her marriage, she has had no use for romantic relationships, and she earned the nickname “the spare wife” for her attention to the relationships of the wealthy couples she calls friends. Ponce goes shopping with the women and watches sports with the men. She helps them host dinner parties, but she’s not considered a threat — until a young, wannabe journalist without much writing talent discovers Ponce is having an affair with a well-known doctor. Babette Steele thinks she’s finally found the story that will propel her to journalistic fame — Ponce, the New York socialite who’s built a reputation of being all things to all people, always there when someone needs her, is really a home-wrecker. Once Ponce learns Babette’s plans, she and her friends work to stop Ponce’s secret from becoming front page news.

While much of the book is about Ponce, Witchel brings other characters to the forefront: Babette, the girl trying to work her way up in the world without a thought to how her actions impact others; Shawsie, Ponce’s best friend, who must balance her willingness to ignore her husband’s philandering with her desire to bear children and create a happy family; and Red, Shawsie’s uncle and Ponce’s long-time friend, who emerges from a year-long depression following the death of his wife.

The Spare Wife pulls readers into New York City high society, following the affluent characters from work to dinner parties and other social gatherings to the bedroom. Witchel shows that it’s exhausting to be rich and well-known, all the keeping up of appearances, all the preparations associated with dinner parties, all the work to maintain a spotless reputation, all the hoops one has to jump through to reach the top of the social ladder. The book is well written, the plot is well paced, and the characters were interesting enough for me to want to know how they fare in the end. However, my life and the lives of these characters are miles apart, and I couldn’t identify with them at all. I didn’t really like any of them; I found them to be superficial, hypocritical, and arrogant. I suspect that was the point, but I’m the type of reader who looks to forge any type of connection to the main characters, latch onto any good quality that will make me feel for their plight. Though I wasn’t able to find that kind of connection with the characters in The Spare Wife, it was nice to escape the dullness of my own life and tag along with high society for a while.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Spare Wife from Plume/Penguin for review purposes as part of a MotherTalk blog tour. I also received a $20 Amazon gift card from MotherTalk for my participation in the tour. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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‘My sweet lawyer,’ she said, her voice deep and slow as the bottom of a river. ‘I don’t think you have a choice.’ She paused, and took another sip of wine. ‘We’re all just ingredients, Tom. What matters is the grace with which you cook the meal.’

(from The School of Essential Ingredients, page 130)

The School of Essential Ingredients has made my list of all-time favorite books. This is a story to be savored, yet it begs to be devoured in one sitting. Erica Bauermeister’s first novel is the story of Lillian, a restaurant owner who learned to cook as a child when her father left and her mother used books to escape what her life had become. Each chapter focuses on a member of the latest session of Lillian’s cooking class, The School of Essential Ingredients: Claire, a young wife and mother whose identity seems lost within her family; Carl and Helen, a husband and wife renewed in the face of betrayal; Tom, a lawyer drowning in grief after the loss of his wife; Antonia, an Italian immigrant who knows the comforts of home; Isabelle, an older woman struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s; Ian, the son of a painter who turns to computers to satisfy his need for precision; and Chloe, a clumsy girl looking to find her place in the world. Lillian senses the needs of these individuals and shows them how to heal and to find love or themselves through cooking, and for Lillian, cooking is about smells and textures and emotions–not recipes.

Bauermeister is a master of words, using simple sentences with descriptions so rich you can actually smell, feel, and taste the food along with whatever emotion the character is feeling. Only a little bit of time is spent on each character, but Bauermeister never wastes a single word so the reader is left full and satisfied. (Satisfied with the story anyway…This book made me so hungry!) Nearly every page features sensual descriptions of food–the aroma of spices, the silky texture of a cake batter–and they made me look at ingredients differently and recognize their power to evoke emotions and repair wounds.

I’m always rummaging through cupboards and creating new recipes, though nothing as fancy as in the book. I think my love of food and willingness to experiment in the kitchen enhanced my enjoyment of the book, but the beauty of Bauermeister’s writing, the realistic characters, and the strength of each of their stories taken as a whole make The School of Essential Ingredients an all-around must-read.

Disclosure:  I received a copy of The School of Essential Ingredients from Putnam/Penguin for review purposes as part of a MotherTalk blog tour. I also received a $20 Amazon gift card from MotherTalk for my participation in the tour. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2009 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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