Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Battle with Depth

Today I tried The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted by Bridget Asher. I left at page 24 because of its stubbornly impenetrable nature. I skimmed through the rest of a flashback and found that the featured wedding lasted for a decent-sized chunk of pages. Some details were beautifully written, such as the family property in Provence, France, but the entire book felt like it was written out of reach. You can observe the events, but you can't feel them. And if you try, the book moves further and further out of your grasp.

Frustrated by it, I moved on to The Kitchen Congregation by Nora Seton. Beautiful writing here too, tapping into deep wells of emotion of family, of cooking, of the descriptions of kitchens and Seton's mother's friends, which take up the first part of the book. She tries for poetic descriptions and accomplishes that sporadically, with some other passages feeling workmanlike, just a way to get to the next part of the thought.

I lasted until page 176. The book ends at page 246, and it's a better average than The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, which ends at page 422. I just shuddered a bit while typing that, imagining trying to get through the rest of it, which I probably would have done if this book had been around in my teens (Although actually, I probably wouldn't have, because I checked out more movie history books than any other kind back then). But I don't have the time now. There's so many books in the world, so much to explore, that if a book doesn't work for me, even after page 20, away it goes for good. If a passage pops up that makes me want to give it a bit more of a go, then I read through the next few pages and decide. My reading list isn't finite, but my life is, and I want to make these decades most enjoyable in reading.

I considered giving up on The Kitchen Congregation during the chapter on Senta, who lived below Seton and her husband "on the first floor of a villa in Zurich." Seton's writing is heartfelt at times, but it feels so removed. You try to reach in and you can't get close enough, not because there's a secret password to declare, but because Seton is so deep into her memories, the emotions conjured up by those memories, that it feels like she forgets to look up and see those who are reading about her life. We are welcome, but please, don't get too close. These floors, these walls, are sacred. Look, but don't touch. Learn, but don't feel as much as she has. Sentimentality shouldn't be mawkish, but it shouldn't make you feel like you have to either learn the secret handshake or beg to know about someone's memories, especially with what they describe in food. Clearly Seton is a fine cook, and loves the life she lives in the kitchen, but everything else here doesn't have the same feeling.

I first skimmed past where I had stopped in the Senta chapter while considering whether to leave this book, finding the same writing style throughout. What's established at the beginning isn't going to change. But the next chapter, "Two in the Kitchen", starts with this:

"When I first saw my husband chopping green beans into uniform inches, I thought the marriage would never last. It was so precise, so painstaking. It was the way his mother did it. He liked his green beans cut small, but then he went and married a woman who manhandled green beans--no knife, no ruler."

"Ok, ok," I thought, "I'll stick with it to see the differences between her method of cooking and her husband's method. I want to know about that."

Seton is a careful writer, and she's thought about these various passages a great deal. She wants her words to be as well-cooked as the dishes she produces in her kitchen. But it feels like she holds onto them too tightly. She doesn't want any to slip out of place and upend the entire production. Most of the time, her writing feels too gentle. When she describes the actions of her children Hugh and baby Maddie while she and they visit Ida, an elderly lively friend, she hits upon the kind of writer she should have been throughout the entire book, including Maddie eating many things such as a pocketbook. It's a welcome shot of amusement that should have been suffused throughout the rest of the sentences here.

By page 176, I became disenchanted with it again and couldn't read any more pages. I appreciate the gentleness of Seton's words, but I wish she had looked up, beckoning the reader to get comfortable and settle in. I felt like I was standing up the entire time, smiling in parts, but mostly watching. Just watching. Never feeling.

After giving it up, I opened up Consuming Passions: A Food-Obsessed Life by Michael Lee West, which was the first in my "First Lines" series of entries (, even though I hadn't read any of it beyond that first paragraph. I like it already and I think it's going to bloom into love because West isn't self-conscious about her words. She writes well, but she wants the reader to come on in right away, to get to know how she became obsessed with food after her grandmother's funeral, because her grandmother's recipe for buttermilk biscuits would have disappeared had it not been for her, urged by her Aunt Tempe to write down the recipe since she remembered it. So far (and I suspect it'll last through the rest of the book), West's writing is warm and genial. And it is full of good-natured Southern life.

My plan for the weekend had been a double header of Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah and Angelina's Bachelors by Brian O'Reilly, since The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted hadn't arrived by Friday. It came on Saturday, and by that time, I had given up on Kitchen Chinese because despite the delicious descriptions of Asian food, the story became very boring. There's no other way to describe it but just that and move on. I devoured Angelina's Bachelors afterward, and then came The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted and the beginning of the entry you just read. So three books came into view this weekend, and only one survived. I'm never perpetually impatient with books, just those I absolutely cannot continue.

No comments:

Post a Comment