A la Carte
by Tanita Davis
Alfred A Knopf/Random House (June 2008)
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Three years ago, when I started high school thirty pounds heavier than everyone in my class, Mom and I came up with a light menu for La Salle Rouge, and it’s been such a popular idea that Mom lets me come up with tasty, low-calorie desserts, which is one of my favorite things to do. It hardly seems fair that I have to walk away from all of that just to do trigonometry, but my mom says I have to finish high school before I concentrate on cooking. She says it’s smarter to have a “backup plan,” and she’s made me apply to plenty of colleges and check out business majors just in case I ever want to do anything else with my life. I guess that makes sense if you’re anybody other than me. When I turn eighteen, I already know what I’m going to do.
—A La Carte by Tanita Davis, p. 4-5.
All seventeen-year-old Lainey wants to do is cook–and become a famous chef someday, with her own cooking show. Being African American and a vegetarian only make her think that the field is more wide open and ready for her. She’s good at cooking, something that runs in her family; both her grandmother and her mother are great cooks, and her mother co-owns a restaurant. Cooking makes Lainey feel better–something she learned from her mother, who offered her food every time she was hurt or disappointed. But then something happens that cooking can’t cure–her ex-best friend, and the boy she’s smitten with, treats her badly, then runs away. Lainey has to learn to deal with this, to value herself, and to not let herself be used.
A la Carte was an enjoyable read; it gripped my interest and held it. Davis’ scenes are vivid, emotional, and feel real. Cooking and baking make a nice backdrop to the story, with actual recipes interspersed throughout. The recipes look like they’ve been handwritten on lined paper by Lainey with personal notes, and each recipe is of something she makes in the book. This makes Lainey seem more like a real person. Some readers may enjoy trying out Lainey’s recipes, which adds another dimension to the book.
For the first page or two, I struggled to understand why Lainey was where she was, but once it was explained on the third page, everything seemed to fall into place, and I found myself loving the details, the tone, and the character.
The beginning of the book sets a cozy, uplifting tone, with Lainey upbeat and fairly confident, surrounded by a loving mother and grandmother, and peers who appreciate her cooking. Small good things keep happening. I enjoyed this tone, and Lainey’s character, immensely. Sim, her ex-best friend, makes many appearances, and it’s clear that Lainey’s smitten with him. But when Sim doesn’t invite her to a big party, and then runs away, it feels like there’s an abrupt, major shift in tone and focus–into unhappiness, worry, and painful emotions. I felt a bit betrayed by the abrupt shift; it didn’t feel like the same book, exactly, that I’d been reading and enjoying for the first ninety pages or so. Sure, there were stresses and unhappiness, but there was such a cozy feeling. Lainey’s whole attitude and personality seem to change after Sim runs away, as does the story, and while that’s understandable, I felt misled. A shorter setting up of life-as-usual before the change would have worked better for me.
Davis seems to know food and food preparation inside out; the specific details feel real and believable, and add to the authenticity of the narrative. She also shows us many times, through other characters’ responses, just how good a cook and baker Lainey is; people rush to grab her baked goods when she brings them to her jazz club or bakes a new recipe at the restaurant. This works well, and may help readers admire Lainey. Backstory is often sprinkled nicely into the story, though there were a few places where it stopped the forward motion. Davis nicely incorporates bits of humor throughout the book, especially Lainey’s mother’s responses.
Lainey is an immediately likable character; she’s talented, generous, brave, optimistic, and motivated. She knows what her dream is, and strides towards it. Most people treat her with great respect–at the restaurant, at the jazz club–and it’s clear that she’s liked. Lainey has her own cooking heroes, including Julia Child, who she calls Saint Julia. This brings both humor and a richness to Lainey’s dreams and personality.
I really liked Lainey, but I wish she didn’t focus so much on her weight; this comes up as a theme throughout the book, but tapers off and doesn’t get resolved. She doesn’t seem to see that she’s beautiful, the way her mother and Chris, a boy who’s interested in her, can see. I also found it hard to stay liking Lainey when, for such a long period, she treated Chris with such disdain and dismissal–exactly the way she’d been treated by Sim. Her good character, ethics, and strength win out–but I don’t feel like we ever got back the upbeat Lainey found in the first third of the book, which was disappointing for me. At one point Lainey says that she second guesses herself about when her cooking or baking is done–but this isn’t apparent most of the time when she cooks, and doesn’t seem to fit with her love of cooking or her character. I didn’t believe it. And while the jazz club was interesting and showed another interest of Lainey’s, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. There were also some small details that didn’t feel like they fit the rest of the story, such as when Lainey says she isolates herself. I didn’t see that; I saw her bringing food to her jazz class, everyone clamoring around her and the food, and her happily interacting with the chefs and kitchen workers at the restaurant.
Sim treats Lainey badly–ignoring her until he needs something from her, coming close to making fun of her in front of his friends, and more. The reader will root for Lainey to stand up to Sim, and when she does, bit by slow bit, it’s a feel-good moment, or at least a relief. When Sim doesn’t invite Lainey to the party, the emotion is strong and tangible; Davis creates the scenes well, inviting readers to feel what Lainey does, and see the story from her perspective. Readers will care about Lainey and what happens to her.
Lainey’s mother seems believable and real, with dimension, as does Lainey’s grandmother. The strong, loving women characters add to the story. Two other characters, Cheryl and Chris (Lainey’s school mates) feel like intentionally added notes to the story. Cheryl adds some small relief, especially when Sim is ignoring Lainey, but the relationship doesn’t go anywhere. Chris moves from a background character to, for a few chapters, a key character where he shows Lainey through her actions that she can be as callous as Sim (though she recovers and becomes compassionate again), but then he almost disappears from the book (aside from a token mention at the end). I would have liked to see these relationships developed more with Lainey, and kept as stronger threads throughout the book.
Davis builds tension well, and also creates moments of relief and positive things happening, which helps to somewhat balance out the increasing angst in the book. Many chapter endings felt abrupt, like several beats were missi or the scene was incomplete. This did not stop me from eagerly turning the pages, though. Davis’ world is compelling.
The ending, though meant to be uplifting, felt a bit forced, and Lainey’s choice of food to bake felt remarkably unlike most of the things we saw her bake or cook throughout the book. Though some backstory was placed to explain her choice, it didn’t make me believe it. And I wanted to, because that was an important moment for Lainey. Still, I devoured all the pages, and enjoyed Lainey’s journey into standing up for herself, not letting herself be used, and taking real steps toward her dream. A la Carte was an entertaining, emotional, gripping read–one I looked forward to, every chapter.