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Starting from Scratch: A Novel Paperback – August 3, 2010
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Top Customer Reviews
Especially the main character, Olivia, who at twenty-seven is the youngest sibling and still single. Olivia has always been close to her mother; sharing her love for cooking and confiding in her. Now she moves back home and quickly takes on the hostess role at family gatherings. Almost as if she is taking her mother's place, as if Vivian's mantle is settling on her daughter's shoulders.
It was fun to watch this story unfold! To observe the dynamics of the siblings and be reminded that familiar patterns from childhood are often still at play as adults. It was a treat to meet the people for whom Vivian, and later Olivia, made a difference. To discover the surprises and family secrets as they began to emerge. And to recognize Olivia moving within the spirit of her mother despite discombobulating sorrow - yet remaining uniquely herself.
This is a mother daughter story with many rich overtones and Susan Gilbert-Collins is adept at telling it. She transitions smoothly between background and immediate scenes. She embeds information so that a second reading is even more delightful than the first. The book's dialogue and banter feel ever so natural, and I loved Olivia's inner conversations! I enjoyed watching her come into her own. And, of course, there are the recipes! The food is everywhere and embellishes the book in many forms.
This is a study of grief and caring and moving on. Remembering and enfolding the beloved, yet facing the necessity of taking bold steps forward. Sometimes that means starting from scratch!
To my surprise, the book seems considerably stronger and far more intelligent than most novels described as chick lit. The author moves very close to literary fiction, except that the main characters are female and she includes recipes. As a sometime writer myself, I am blown away by the authors craftsmanship. She consistently follows the maxim to "Show, don't tell." For instance, early in the book she presents a funny story of how the family acquired their Siamese cat. This story tells us more about the family than dozens of pages of descriptive prose...and it's fun to read, too.
The Tschetter family is presented affectionately but not sentimentally. We view the world consistently through the eyes of Olivia, the youngest of four children, all raised in a small town in South Dakota. We get a sense of how each sibling has developed a strong personality. The author does a remarkable job of showing how the siblings relate as adults, drawn together by family obligation yet rubbing against each other the way family members do. The family isn't dysfunctional; mostly they love and respect each other. But like all families, they tend to talk about trivial things and they often drive each other mad.
Even more amazing, the author kept me hooked without much action. Perhaps the liveliest climactic scene comes at a family dinner, when a surprising announcement sets off some strong emotions. Olivia does discover some family secrets, but there's no hard-edged suspense. The ending comes as a consequence of Olivia's actions, where in some ways she mirrors her mother's capacity for strength and propensity to interfere in other people's lives. Olivia's actions, purpose and outcome will be considerably different.
Olivia's mother, Vivian, remains alive through flashbacks form Olivia's conversation and memories. Her father seems more of a shadowy character; he's called "Father" throughout, so it took me awhile to recognize his first name. Yet he's not a distant patriarch, absorbed in intellectual pursuits; he engages with Olivia and even knows how to do a few things in the kitchen. Olivia's male sibling and erstwhile boyfriend are similarly distant from us; we never really get inside David's head as we do with the sisters. Perhaps the author is more comfortable with female characters, but only slightly so.
I was especially fascinated with the family's support of Olivia's graduate school career. She's studying at a university the author calls St Anselm's. Unless this school is extremely prestigious, and unless Olivia's a spectacular student, her chances of finding a full-time job in linguistics range, sadly, from slim to none. Olivia's advisor has been extraordinarily kind. However, at this stage, an advisor has invested a great deal of time and energy in a student; he's motivated to help her finish so she'll be a credit to him and his department. Maybe they'll even publish together.
The author was wise to stop where she did, leaving us to wonder how everything will turn out. Olivia's actions were completed so we can't complain that we were left hanging. It's like reading a story of someone in school: when they graduate, this part of the story is over, but if you care about the character, you won't want to say good-by at graduation.
This book deserves a wider audience. I hope the author and publisher will be *much* more aggressive as they promote it.
The process of navigating sudden loss, artfully explored by Gilbert-Collins, is for Olivia slow, uncertain, and even ironic at times. But like the complementary flavors in one of her own gourmet recipes, Olivia's experiences produce a surprising alchemy; as the weeks pass, memory flavored by immediacy, childhood habits blending into an adult identity, and personal pain seasoned with newfound compassion create for Olivia richer, if altered, relationships with those she loves. Gilbert-Collins tells this story with humor, insight, and a touch of suspense, and surrounds Olivia with excellent yet infuriating siblings who may well remind you of people you grew up with. Starting from Scratch is the best sort of treat: a novel with nuance and depth that's palatable too.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Olivia Tschetter has just successfully defended her doctoral dissertation when...Read more