Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients--Erica Bauermeister (book review)

I already gushed about The School of Essential Ingredients when I'd first started reading it. The question was, would the rest of the book live up to my expectations? The easy answer is, Yes. Erica Bauermeister's last 225 pages are precisely as well-written as the first fifteen.

Knowing that each chapter focuses on a different member of a cooking class, I'd wondered whether it would read more like a collection of short stories than a novel. The characters interact with each other, and their stories progress along a timeline with one class per chapter, so in that sense it works as a novel. But I liked it better when I thought of it as short stories.

About three-fourths of the way through I found myself . . . not bored, exactly. Complacent. Each chapter contains the steady unfolding of a new character, without much in the way of conflict. There's pain: a man who recently lost his wife to cancer, a woman with Alzheimer's disease, a teen in an unhealthy relationship. But each person's story is bundled nicely into one chapter before moving on to the next, and there was never a moment where I wondered whether Carl and Helen would start chucking vases at each other, or Lillian would run off with the produce deliverer and not show up for class, or Chloe would end up living on the streets.

If you crave a high dose of drama, this isn't the book for you. It's more of a book take into the bath with you on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a tough week, when you just want to shut out the world and bathe in Tiramisu. And a lovely bath it will be.

The Soundtrack: Sabor a Mi (on my playlist I have Los Lobos's version), because of the Mexican woman who taught Lillian so much about food and life, and because of lyrics like this:
We've enjoyed this love for so long
our souls have grown together
so that I carry the taste of you within me
but you also carry
the taste of me

Other reviews: Leafing Through Life
Peeking Between the Pages
Books and Cooks
Books on the Brain
Bermuda Onion
and...(leave me a link and I'll add it, I should really learn to write these down when I come across them on the blogs I read regularly).


  1. This sounds like a fun read ... and a great excuse for more books in the tub. "But honey, I can do my best reading in a bubble bath." Think it will work? 255 pages is a lot to live up to when the first 15 draw you in.Thanks for sharing.

  2. Dar is sending me a copy of this one, and I'm really looking forward to it!

    I failed miserably at the linking to other reviews. I asked for people's links a few times, but then I would forget to go back and add them. I finally admitted failure and gave up on the whole idea. Although I love it when other people do it! :-D

  3. I liked this too!

  4. Readingtub, You could read this one in a hammock, too. ;-)

    Jill, I'm not giving up, I have a plan--at least for ARCs. But even with my plan, I worry someone's feelings will get hurt if I missed theirs. Hmmm.

    Thanks Tara, I'll add you! I totally remember your review now that you mention it--it was you who'd read her other book, right?

  5. That looks like such a fun book. I'll get around to it someday!

  6. oh, perhaps (perhaps!) I should comment on this post: I am seeing this everywhere. Here's another rev:

  7. Great review! I loved this book, too.

  8. This is the only review of this book that actually interested me in it.

    The reason is that I am the farthest thing from a cook or food connoisseur that you are likely to meet. I can't cook and am often shooed away from the kitchen because I keep burning myself on the oven or burning the chicken (or both, really). So why read about cooking?

    But when you mention the characters and how lovely a book it would be for a luxurious bubble bath, I found myself intrigued. I have defnitely been craving books that are lighter this past week (and I am sure weeks to come). Thanks for a lovely review. :)

  9. Rebecca, you'll love the chapters about the characters who think they can't cook! This one guy has botched rice more times than I can count. He's determined to master it. Approaches it like an engineer. Made me laugh.

  10. I'm seeing great reviews of this book everywhere I go. Makes me kind of sad that I didn't get it from Shelf-Awareness. Then I look at my huge TBR pile and realize that it's all ok. :) I'm just going to have find time to read this book sometime later this year.

  11. It reminds me of the structure of *Olive Kitteridge* (loved it!), with each chapter delving into one character (and being able to stand alone as a short story), with the book taken as a whole to give you a sense of the community (in this case, the cooking class).

  12. Alyce, I didn't get the Shelf Awareness offer, either, but I heard through the grapevine that they came up with more ARCs so I emailed the publicist and asked again!

    Dawn, I remember reading your review of Olive Ketteridge but I hadn't read this yet, so I didn't make the connection. You're right, it's a very similar structure.

  13. Really enjoyed your review and this one is going on my radar :)

  14. How do you botch rice? Even I can manage that. Wish I had this book and a bathtub.

  15. Lenore, yes: With this book to distract you, and a bathtub, you could surely manage to botch rice. ;-)

    Iliana, Thanks! I hope you read it one day, you'll be glad you did.

  16. Ali-
    One time I botched rice and it was so terrible! I have also botched warming up veggies out of a can because I leave them too long on the stove. I am so not cut out for cooking. I bet you are right that those are the chapters I would enjoy most!

  17. What a wonderful review. I love the addition of the music to it. I think I would love this book....sounds kinda like the pace of Under The Tuscan Sun, one of my favorite books. I'm going to add it to my list.
    You have a wonderful blog :)

  18. Rebecca, botched rice is indeed terrible! A rice cooker is a godsend, even to those of us who enjoy cooking.

    Chic Geek, I loved Under the Tuscan Sun, too!

  19. I loved the book as well. Little bit of "Garden Spell" magic, too. My review is here:

  20. This book sounds good; I just reserved it at the Library. Thanks for posting.