Recently I’ve found I gravitate to stories about chefs and food. I favorably reviewed “A Coincidence of Coconut Cake” by Amy E. Reichert, and the debut novel from Charmaine Wilkerson’s “Black Cake” not too long ago. “Lizzy and Jane” by Katherine Reay became the next “cheffie” or “foodie” story for me to read.
At the start, I thought of the movie “No Reservations” (Catherine Zeta Jones, Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin). I really need to watch that one again. Paula, the owner of a New York restaurant, brought in a talented chef Nick to work side-by-side with her top chef Kate to bring in more customers. In the movie, Chef Kate’s life had been all about the restaurant until she became the guardian of her niece, Zoe. That threw her life off-course leading her to make life changes. In “Lizzy and Jane,” Paul, the financial backer of New York restaurant, “Feast,” brought in a marketing expert and chef Trent Murray when he saw top chef Elizabeth “Lizzy” Hughes losing her culinary vision and creativity. She had become divided and distracted in the kitchen. Her sister Jane had cancer just like their mother, who died her senior year in high school.
Elizabeth had a breaking point at work and saw her career dreams dying. Paul gave her time away from her restaurant “Feast” to visit her family. She truly thought she’d get her mojo back with the time away. Her dad talked her into traveling with him to Seattle to help hold down the fort for her sister Jane while she went through chemotherapy treatments.
Lizzy and her Dad had walked through that fire with her mother’s cancer, but her mother died, and soon after Lizzy ran away to escape her old life. She left for culinary training, leaving her father to grieve alone. But she named her restaurant “Feast” after something her mother said when calling them all to dinner.
“Lizzy and Jane” moved into a story of how two estranged sisters would need a miracle to reconcile with one another. They were named for the sisters in “Pride & Prejudice,” but their relationship looked nothing like Jane Austen’s sisters. And just like she walked through the fire with her mother, Lizzy would do the same with Jane.
I found the reunion of the sisters hard to read. They brought out hurts and wounds of the past to inspect often, especially the loss of their mother. They had to work through all the years of estrangement. But then Lizzy reconnected with her brother-in-law, Peter, her niece Kate, and nephew Danny. She had a family. And she made true friendships – even a love connection — along the way.
Lizzy found new purpose too. She would take Jane to the infusion center, and they’d read Jane Austen works as Jane had treatment. She met nurse Cecilia whose overall description reminded me of Pauley Perrette as forensic scientist “Abby Sciuto” from “NCIS.” I found myself reading about the “red devil,” doxorubicin, and Taxol as they made trips to the infusion center that Reay called a “dystopian library.”
I’ve sat among those who’ve had chemotherapy in an infusion center. I had to receive two iron infusions at two points in my adult life. Interestingly, I too thought to bring Jane Austen with me. I knew enough about chemotherapy to know that the medicine meant to heal kills the bad AND the good. I knew the side effects were devastatingly painful at times. But I hadn’t considered that one’s tastes in food would also change.
Lizzy cooked for Jane and her children that first night, but Jane couldn’t stomach anything after chemotherapy. Everything tasted like metal. She became frustrated and hurt, but then took on the challenge of finding ways to make the same dishes palatable. Some were stinky and didn’t taste great to others, but Jane approved, ate and gained weight producing a great effect on her blood counts.
As a result of Jane’s progress, Cecilia asked Lizzy if she would help another patient and his brother.
Food references from fiction abounded as Lizzy came up with menus and did some profiling to cater to the tastebuds of each client. I don’t know how Reay remembered all the food from Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and Babette’s Feast, based on the short story from Isak Dinesen, who also wrote the memoir “Out of Africa.” But the seed of a new plan started to grow and bloom as Lizzy realized what truly made her heart soar. She rethought her purpose in life.
The story resonated with me I think because I too have struggled to hold onto an image of how my life should look. Well, a successful life anyway. I’ve had what appeared a dream come true only to find a nightmare instead. What I thought I wanted led to pain and heartache. Sometimes we hold a dream too close, an image of prosperity society told us we should want, cling to it even. And then what we do — our life’s work — defines who we are. We become “human doings” instead of “human beings,” if you will.
I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say it’s a bumpy ride for Lizzy and Jane. It’s a story of forgiveness that’s hard won, real, true-to-life. And it’s about seeing people — flaws and all — and giving them grace along with unconditional love, the kind God gives to us. Reay reminded me of a C.S. Lewis quote about love, about closing ourselves off to love because we’re afraid of getting hurt:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I took this book out through Amazon Prime Reading, but it’s available here. For more about Katherine Reay, check out her website or her author page on Goodreads.