October 23, 2005

Cooking Flops And Other Jinxes

At the distinct risk of spilling all of my deep secrets, I'll tell you what prompted me to begin writing the food novel I hope to someday publish. I read a book about a teen boy who cooked, and it didn't end the way I thought it should. Yep. That's all it took...

Flavor of the Week, by Tucker Shaw, is probably a harmlessly predictable love triangle story. It's another retelling of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, first told in 1897, and revamped for the newest century. This time, Cyril is in the starring role of the boy with the blemish. His blemish isn't his nose, however; it's his weight. He's a master chef already at the age of sixteen, auditioning to gain acceptance into a prestigious cooking academy, but right now his mind's not on his work. See, there's this girl...

Told like a cross between a sardonic romance novel and a cooking guide, FOTW is the Like Water for Chocolate for the YA set. There are recipes at the end of every chapter -- and they're amazing: rhubarb iced tea, kitchen-sink cookies, baked pumpkin seeds with cumin, M&M brownies... this book just might make cooking cool for everyone. (The fact that Cyril HATES Emeril "Bam!" Lagasse, yet watches him like a train wreck, makes me feel even happier.)

Of course, there's a downside: the Bergerac tale is one that's been done to death, and Shaw's story escapes from the greatness it could've achieved by a number of slips in the end, including dumbing down its women. Oh, grievous sin, my friend. It doesn't take ditzy female characters to make a boy book.

Cyril's mother is an ER nurse who works weird hours; her only lines are odd ones. She wanders through the script, apparently for charm, being fed by her son, and going to sleep. Somehow, despite the burgeoning weight issues and the fact that a health professional is in residence, the fat thing isn't touched on more than a 'isn't this a nuisance' issue. The recipes are high fat and high sugar, for the most part. Ouch.

Cyril's father is completely absent, though we're told he still resides in the house...the parental lack of presence is so unremarked upon that it is notable. The words "charged prop" come to mind - but nothing happens with the mother, or the father, and I almost wonder why they're there.

Roxanne/Rose goes from being just a pretty lab partner into a "crunchy granola" hippie chick, until she decides to 'seduce' someone. In the end, she simply falls into Cyril's arms, and the credits roll, and everything is happily ever after: he gets the girl, his best friend gets the OTHER girl, he gets a SECOND CHANCE at a cooking audition (Oh, since WHEN does the American Institute of Culinary Arts do that???). The shallow best friend is never anything more or less than he is written to be -- amazingly, thoughtlessly, blemish-less-ly perfect. No cartoon anvils drop on his head. Darn.

As I mentioned, I found the ending somewhat lacking. Shaw could've killed all of his characters off in the last scene and been more creative. And speaking of piles of dead characters, FOTW is suspiciously like a Shakespeare story, where there's a convenient twin of the right sex for the poor prince who's left without. Also lacking was the fact that there was a major problem with Cyrano -- that is, the lack of self-esteem it takes to continue to help someone win over a heart that you want for your own. Especially in a YA book, it's important to at least touch on a theme like that. The question of 'why do we do the things we do?' is the end all, at least to me, of YA.

So -- here's the book that started it all. Sincere thanks, Tucker Shaw.

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