By Ruth Reichl
Within contemporary fiction exists a thriving “Cinderella-gets-a-career” sub-genre. These are novels, usually set in New York City, featuring female protagonists who nab entry-level positions in industries that appear glamorous from the outside (think The Devil Wears Prada). Their paths are littered with roadblocks but they triumph professionally, inevitably with a cute guy by their side.
It’s a surprisingly clichéd formula for a writer as acclaimed as Reichl to adopt for her first novel, yet she has in this frothy meringue of a read. Reichl, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine before its closure in 2009, has written three memoirs noted for their vivid characterizations and nuance. Those qualities are evident, though in more muted form, in the tale of Wilhelmina (Billie) Breslin, a former professional baker who lands a job as assistant to the editor of Delicious!, a food magazine modelled after Gourmet. Billie is a marvel: despite self-doubt and panic attacks, she charms everyone with her golden palate and wonderfulness. She wins her job at Deli
cious! after wowing her future boss by baking a ginger cake. That she pulled this off is a big deal, readers are told: Billie stopped cooking after a tragic event that’s revealed midway through the novel.
When Delicious!, the magazine, folds, Billie stays on to deal with administrative details. Doing so, she uncovers a cache of letters exchanged between famed chef James Beard and a 12-year-old girl, Lulu Swan, during the Second World War. The letters, and her ensuing complicated search for the 84-year-old Lulu, lead Billie to confront her own tortured past.
Despite its shopworn formula, Delicious! is a surprising page-turner, laced with promising plot twists that can flatten like a soufflé, as well as details designed to engage the food-obsessed (differences between spring and winter Parmesan; descriptions of meals that reference Reichl’s past as a restaurant reviewer). Anyone expecting a dishy roman à clef will be sadly disappointed, despite the fact one very nice character is clearly inspired by celebrity chef April Bloomfield. It’s best to read Delicious! as a G-rated throwback to pre-Anthony Bourdain gentility as Billie undergoes her transformation from dowdiness to epicurian swan. Readers who cheer her on will be rewarded: the book ends with the recipe for the ginger cake.