The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline
Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
There have always been books about the romantic aspirations of women, but in the early '90s, the term "chick lit" emerged. Describing books written for women, ostensibly younger women, they usually follow a time-honored structure. Woman endures a tragedy (breakup, death, pink slip) and wonders if her future holds any promise. Somehow, she stumbles over a long stifled dream and in the process finds true love while simultaneously finding herself.
The Way Life Should Be follows this template to the letter, but rises far above it in some passages. Author Christina Baker Kline introduces us to Angela Russo, a 30-something woman carving out a career as an event planner in New York City. Raised by her loving father and her wisecracking first-generation Italian grandmother, she longs for something more. There is a photo, torn from a magazine, of a picturesque Maine cottage tacked up on her office wall, more of a talisman than something real, as she has never been to Maine. After her best friend meets a great guy online, Angela impulsively begins corresponding with a man in Maine, even faking some of her interests to keep him writing.
Enter the tragedy. Angela is fired due to an incident involving a circus fire-eater with a grudge who ruins an important museum event. Against her better judgment and the advice of her friends, Angela takes off to Maine to set up housekeeping in her ideal Maine cottage with her online boyfriend. When his home doesn't turn out to be very cottage-like and he, in fact, not very boyfriend-like, Angela is forced to confront what she was pursuing in the first place. She stays in town, working by day at a local café, and by night teaching ad-hoc cooking classes out of the run-down shack that she rents by the ocean. And in the process...well, you know the rest.
What makes The Way Life Should Be worth reading is the food. Descriptive passages of Angela's grandmother teaching her the basics of cooking Italian food; prepared with love, from scratch, they make you long for a stove and a sturdy pot. There are paragraphs reminiscent of the best cookbooks or a food writer's memoir. Angela's realizations about herself don't come easy. Painful recognition of mistakes made multiple times over keep the novel on real emotional terrain, and the ending feels hopeful, not treacly.
Born in the 18th century, the English novel became wildly popular among middle-class women, and critics whined about the effects of this "sentimental fiction" on the country's intellect. Much is the same when people discuss chick-lit, or its even more repudiated cousin, the Romance Novel. Some women become mute when confronted with questions about them, a bit like saying you don't watch television, when you really do. And why the shame surrounding what is usually a good yarn? Elevated by a good writer, this stylized form of fiction can be every bit as revelatory as a high literary novel.
Not to mention the historical record of women in the late-20th and early-21st centuries that these books provide. Just as movies are idealized versions of real-life situations, these novels have the potential to be a record of what a large population of women dream about and aspire to. We certainly don't think of the women of the 1950s as being exactly like the women in How to Marry a Millionaire or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but these movies give us an idea of what the archetypes of that time were.
And, perhaps, some women read books to escape the more mundane aspects of life and want to read about The Way Life Should Be, instead of the way life really is.