Vintage Cookbooks Drive the Plot: Elinor Lipman and Karma Brown

One way to time-travel is to peruse a vintage cookbook, follow the recipe, whip up some crazy food nobody eats anymore, and eat up the results. I have read two novels lately where vintage cookbooks drive the plot for a contemporary protagonist. If you’re a fan of the movie Julie & Julia (the one where the foodie blogger cooks her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking), these books are for you!

Karma Brown’s novel, Recipe for a Perfect Wife, is one of those multiple-timelines-multiple-viewpoints books, and handles the two storylines better than most.  It has two timelines, one in 1955 and one in 2018. The first chapter isn’t dated, but I’m going to go ahead and suggest it belongs to the 1955 timeline, which is the story of Nellie Murdoch, a woman of great potential in many ways who was brought up to believe that marriage was her best destiny. Nellie married young, and brings her gardening skills, her cookery, and her tragic past with her. The 2018 timeline is the story of Alice, whose workplace toxicity leads her to leave her career in the dust when she and her husband take the big step of moving out of Manhattan to the ‘burbs in New Jersey. Alice discovers Nellie’s 1950s-era cookbook, and is inspired to try some of the recipes she finds there. Nellie and Alice live in the same house in different eras, where expectations for women are in many ways different but in many ways depressingly the same. I enjoyed this story very much, especially Nellie’s.

Ms. Demeanor is the first Elinor Lipman novel I have read, and it certainly won’t be the last. I read it in one day. It’s set in New York City and told in first-person by Jane, a lawyer in her late thirties who is let go from her job, suspended from practicing law, and confined to six months’ house arrest for indecent exposure. Jane is fairly new to her building, and she has been very focused on her career. Now she has to muster her wits to fill her days, which she does with some prodding from her twin sister Jackleen, a successful dermatologist who also lives in New York. Jackleen and Jane track down vintage cookbooks from the late 1800s that have been passed down through extended family. Jane begins a new adventure in cooking, blogging, posting on TikTok, and becoming a personal chef. I enjoy Jane’s voice a lot.  She is smart, direct, and willing to take on new challenges. I like her relationship with Jackleen. which is close and sisterlike without being idealized. I enjoyed Jane’s foray into vintage cookbooks and recipes and her resulting TikTok adventures. I enjoyed the love story. Where’s another Elinor Lipman book, please?

Oh, here are some, and some Karma Browns too:

Rachel To the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

The Life Lucy Knew by Karma Brown

The Choices We Make by Karma Brown



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