Starting from Scratch: A Novel with Recipes
In Starting from Scratch, Olivia Tschetter successfully defended her doctoral dissertation and lost her mother all in one day. The youngest of four siblings, Olivia moves back home to be with her father, to run away from her responsibilities at school, and to grieve. Her connection to her mother, who was an incredible cook, is food. At first, she uses food as a way to shove her pain aside, but it eventually becomes one of the ways she gets past her grief.
This is the simplest way to describe a book that is both straightforward and layered at the same time, particularly when revealing those layers would give away all the best parts. Let me just say that it’s easy to enjoy this book on a superficial level—it’s well-written, the characters are easy to relate to, and it’s a quick read—but there are also moments that can be appreciated more deeply. For example, when Olivia unexpectedly starts with an old friend of her mother’s, Winnie, she stumbles into a minefield of sorts as Winnie reveals secrets Olivia’s family has kept from her. It turns out that Winnie is estranged from her own daughter, and the parallels between the way Olivia is suffering and the way Winnie and her own daughter deal with their own issues are quite compelling. It all reminds the reader that life-changing moments are universal, and that even if we deal with things in our own way, we don’t have to deal with them alone.
Another thing I must point out (again, without giving too much away) is the way this novel pulls off having both food and abuse as its subject matter. It sounds completely absurd, yet Starting from Scratch does it in a beautifully poignant way.
Food is almost like this family’s own language; it’s the way they communicate with each other, for better or worse. As Olivia works to finish the cooking newsletter her mother was working on when she died, the reader is taken through Olivia’s mourning and her reaction to the secrets she’s learned from Winnie. Meanwhile, the way women and their families deal with abuse is at the very heart of this story. Surprisingly, one thing does not take away from the other or make the abuse seem trivial. In short, Starting from Scratch is a pleasant surprise. I found myself laughing out loud at some parts, and weeping at others. The story sucks you in and it’s over all too soon. By the end, I felt like I was a part of this family, and I wanted desperately to find out what happens to all of them beyond the point at which the story ends.