Davis, Tanita. 2008. A La Carte.
An empty plate hits the stainless steel deck in the kitchen of La Salle Rouge with a clatter.
Rarely do I so completely agree with a jacket flap. But in this case, it is right on.
Seventeen-year-old Lainey dreams of becoming a world famous chef one day and maybe even having her own cooking show. (Do you know how many African American female chefs there aren't? And how many vegetarian chefs have their own shows? The field is wide open for stardom.) But when her best friend--and secret crush--suddenly leaves town, Lainey finds herself alone in the kitchen. With a little help from Saint Julia (Child, of course), Lainey seeks solace in her cooking as she comes to terms with the past and begins a new recipe for the future. Peppered with recipes from Lainey's notebooks, this delicious debut novel finishes the same way one feels after a good meal--satiated content, and hopeful.
A La Carte does not overwhelm you with its greatness. Perhaps overwhelm isn't the right word, what I mean is that it is subtle and gentle. It's not overpowering. (It's the kind of 'greatness' that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise.) Most YA novels in one way or another deal with the 'issue' or 'theme' of identity. And A La Carte is no different. It is without a doubt a coming of age story. Lainey--as a person--grows, changes, evolves, learns, awakens through the course of the novel. The Lainey we meet on page 1 is not the Lainey we say goodbye to on page 280. Some things stay the same, of course, but quite a few things change. One is the way Lainey sees herself, knows herself, respects herself.
But A La Carte also offers an in-depth look at family life. Particularly the relationship between Lainey and her mom. It is so well done. So dimensional. I hope that makes sense. In other words, both Lainey and her mom, Vivianne, are fully developed. And their relationship has depth and life.
And then there's the friendship angle. The popularity angle. Lainey is on the fringes, the outskirts of high school society. She's more of a loner. And content to be that way. Sure she wishes that some of her former friends hadn't ditched her for the cool crowd. But she's happy staying in the kitchen. Or so she thinks most of the time. This book examines what it means to be a friend, to have a friend. What does healthy friendship look like? What doesn't it look like?
In a way A La Carte says a great deal about longing. I don't want to say too much more about that because I don't want to spoil this one for anyone.
A La Carte is good. It resonates in meaning-of-life internal drama. There's a richness to it that I can't quite explain. I suppose I mean it has depth and layers.
Saint Julia always said that in cooking, there are very few mistakes that can't be corrected. You can add a pinch of salt and some chopped herbs to the butter if you forgot to put salt in your bread. If your souffle falls, you can serve it with a sauce over it, and it'll look just fine. Gummy mashed potatoes can be resurrected as potato pancakes. But once you add too much pepper to something--it's over. You can't make something less spicy than it is. (179)Definitely recommended. (Though I must admit the ending seemed a bit too happy to be realistic. Still, overall, I enjoyed it and found it a satisfying read. In fact, it made me a bit hungry!)
Other reviews: Cheryl Rainfield, Little Willow,
© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews