Reviewed by Carole Goldberg
When Nora Ephron wrote her bitterly comic novel Heartburn and threw in a few recipes to sweeten the effect, she was devising a recipe for other authors to follow.
Since then, novelists including Jan Karon, Laura Esquivel and Diane Mott Davidson have made food an essential ingredient of their books and included recipes for the avid reader. We can now, happily, add Lara Vapnyar to that list.
And more important, we also can note that Vapnyar is one of the increasingly impressive roster of authors who have emigrated from Russia and other Eastern European countries and are now producing, in graceful and nuanced English that seems like their mother tongue, some of our finest contemporary literary fiction.
In Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, she captures, with exquisite description and delicately irony, the loneliness of the outsider, grateful to be living here, yet longing to feel at home.
Vapnyar, who emigrated from Russia in 1994 knowing only a little English, now lives on Staten Island. She has also written the novel Memoirs of a Muse and There Are Jews in My House, a story collection, as is Broccoli.
Food is a central element in these tales. In the opener, "A Bunch of Broccoli on the Third Shelf," Nina, an immigrant and "a computer programmer, like everybody else," who considers herself plain and clumsy, reads cookbooks as if they were porn and buys vegetables by the armload, but never quite gets around to cooking them for her handsome husband. This is a story of emptiness amidst abundance, and it takes another immigrant -- also plain, also lonely, but kind -- to lift Nina up, literally and figuratively, into joy.
"Borscht" is the story of Sergey, who installs carpet, not hard drives, and pines for his wife back in Russia, who sounds less and less interested in joining him in America. He decides to buy a little female companionship and winds up with Alla, whose body is unattractive but whose heart is warm. From her he gets not what he thinks he wanted, but far more than he expected.
"Salad Olivier," named for a traditional Russian holiday dish of potatoes and meat and a large -- no, excessive -- no, frightening -- amount of mayonnaise, is a story of family expectations, a father's despair, a mother's hysteria and a daughter who realizes:
"They need me after all, if only as a link holding them together. I take a handful of the soft feeble snow and knead it in my palms. It melts before I am able to form a shape."
We watch as her own soft, feeble attempts to direct her life also melt away.
The mood turns comic and sharp as heartburn in "Luda and Milena," about two aging Russian women in an English class in New York City who find themselves vying for the attentions of an even more elderly gentleman.
One is frumpy, the other elegant, yet both are lonely and contemptuous of each other. It's not so much that they wish to seduce Aron, although their fantasies are robust -- it's that they want to show each other up. Each acquires a polyglot cheering section of class members, and they do combat at the weekly international food festival lunch. Their weapons? Cabbage pies, cheese puffs and killer meatballs. There's a victory at the end of the story, and it may surprise you.
A "Roundup of Recipes" follows, and with them we get another of Vapnyar's voices: this one funny and personal and full of teasing affection for family and traditions. "Broccoli" can be consumed in an afternoon's reading, but it will nourish the mind for a long time thereafter.
Carole Goldberg is the Courant Books Editor.
Books mentioned in this post