After reading the first few chapters of novelist Kate Christensen's new memoir Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, I didn't think I was going to keep on reading it. Fairly early on, there's some descriptions of her father's abuse of her mother, and I really, REALLY dislike reading about domestic abuse. But for some reason nothing else I had around to read was appealing to me, so I just kind of kept going back to this one, and because it's written in short chapters (which I love), I found that all of a sudden I had finished it.
I know, this does not sound like a ringing endorsement of this book.
But it was, in its own way, very readable. It's not fancy: Christensen basically tells her life story through the lens of food, moving from her childhood in Berkley and through her mother's first divorce and subsequent marriages, during which the family moved around quite a bit. (Her mother's a fascinating character in her own right; a strong-willed woman who, in essence, keeps finding and marrying the "wrong" men, but manages, for the most part, to raise her three daughters in a close-knit family unit.)
Christensen also very matter-of-factly describes her own work experiences, education, and eventual writing career, as well as her complex first marriage. And at the end of several chapters she provides recipes from her personal history, with her own spin on them. Although books with recipes tend to be (in my experience), decidedly "cozy" in tone, that is not the case here. Starting with the domestic abuse, moving through a childhood marked by uprootedness and unhappiness at school (including some horrific offhand remarks about a math teacher of hers who sexually harrasses her and many other students), and moving through an adult life fraught with complex relationships, dieting issues, and a stint of nannying in France, there is a lot of dark stuff here.
It comes late, but Christensen's writing is at her best, I feel, when she is writing about reading and writing. And even when she discusses her fascination with detective novels, she brings it back to food:
"And almost all fictional detectives knew how to eat. Marlowe armed himself for stakeouts with ham-and-cheese sandwiches and a bottle of whiskey; V. I. Warshawski escaped danger and made a beeline for a Hungarian goulash at the Golden Glow...Robert B. Parker's Spencer ate as grandly as he spouted half-pretentious literary allusions, and I loved him for it; I hated his psychotherapist girlfriend, however, because she nibbled at a lettuce leaf and called it a meal."* (p. 222.)
*I never cared much for Spencer's girlfriend either. I just thought she was dull.