Elevate Difference

Steamed: A Gourmet Girl Mystery

Steamed is a beach-book that should have been broadcasted—Law and Order _meets _The Naked Chef. This book is formulaic TV on paper, addictive with a pinch of sex appeal. Despite being a truly page-turning story, Steamed can be described in many ways, but does very little with the power of literary description, character and plot development, or genre.

Jessica Conant-Park and Susan Conant, a mother-daughter team, get together to write what is the younger's first book. (Susan is the writer of the Dog Lover's Mysteries and Cat Lover's Mysteries). Clearly drawing from Jessica's experiences—from her background in social work and her marriage to Chef William Park—the authors script a picture of a twenty-five-year-old, semi-jaded heiress on the prowl for new love—regarding men and food—in Massachusetts.

Master's student, social worker, and not-so-hopeful Chloe Carter has rotten luck when her blind, online date is murdered at a swank new restaurant in Boston. As if this isn't enough to send readers reeling, Carter gets caught up in an unreal web of lies with her dead date's parents while a relationship with the prime murder suspect comes to a rolling boil. All ends more-or-less realistically, restaurant politics considered.

Writing 101: who, what, when, where, why and how. Since readers are not characters or active participators in any piece of writing (save choose-your-own-adventure), we need help seeing our way through a story. All I can say is: Help!

The first bite of this book doesn't give us any clues to form a basic picture our minds. For example the book begins, "On Saturday morning, I woke up at eight, poured a nasty cup of coffee, and plopped myself at my kitchen table to do some early morning people watching out the window. I sipped my coffee-sludge and peered down at the street." In this moment, what I am looking for is a wisp of red, sleep-knotted hair, a coffee spot on Chloe's green, terry cloth robe. Can I have the corner of a red-brick building, a sad awning that should have been replaced ten years ago, or a line of small, carefully trimmed hedges? From this introduction to Steamed, the story moves into a bit of an entertaining, light-hearted tangent that does nothing to orient the reader in Chloe's apartment or introduce us to who she.

The problem persists when describing food—a feature this book claims to offer. I am not a gourmet-eater from Boston. I can relate to the doughy, unhappy appearance of stuck-together spaghetti. "So damn good?" Readers who are not foie gras ravioli connoisseurs will need to go taste the dish to know how the food is supposed to taste or look. The text doesn't do it. Also, it is far too many pages into the book before we have a dash of an idea about what Chloe looks like—thank goodness for the representative front cover or I might never know how she is able to snag Magellan chef-hunk, Josh Driscoll.

The Conant duo does reference specific Massachusettes eateries, kudos, that a local might instantly be able to reference as rapidly as the vision of Madonna in "Like a Virgin," but the rest of us are left with little to work off. Can Eagle's Deli also be all-day deli that manages to serve dishes on oily wax paper wrap and peeling, yellow Formica tables?

I would have liked to see Chloe develop as a character through her bizarre experiences. She doesn't. Her character starts as only a semi-sweet, mildly-likable student. And while the authors allude to a shift in her opinion about getting an advanced degree in social work, Chloe never crosses over with a realization about who she is or what it might mean to be a social worker - with or without her experiences with death and deceit. The plot would benefit from Chloe implementing more of her fledgling psychoanalytic skills on anything or anyone; they are lightly used as an aid in discovering the truth, but there is no real value placed on her education by the authors or the character herself. Instead readers waste time with Braids in scenes which contributed little to the story—even Chloe avoids them. The book's lack of character evolution and surface plot are missed opportunities for even sous chef status much less an executive position among books. I was not satiated.

All of this criticism considered, and probably most important of all, what am I watching and why? In other words, what was the Conant pair trying to achieve, and did they succeed? I don't know, and I don't know; I can't answer part one of the question, so I can't answer part two. The authors' goal is not clear to me, and therefore, their result isn't either. Genre is a problem. If the book were prepared as a meringue-inspired beach book, a gourmet mystery, I'd say perfecto! But if it was supposed to be a deeper, inward book about a gourmet girl at a specific point in her life, about a girl who gets burned yet saves the day and comes out on top, I'd have to skimp on the stars. Did the authors intend to write a dainty appetizer or failed meat dish?

Initially, I thought appetizer. Time and effort are spent on plot development—setting up the decoy suspect, who seems the least bit concerned about his implication, and introducing possible but not plausible alternative suspects and tiny clues for the attentive reader. The who-done-it mystery is light-hearted and fun to say the least, but there is considerable time spent on Chloe. Chloe's rambling thoughts and Chloe's love life come in streams of well written, relatable, internal commentary that last for a page or more at a time. While readers won't know much about the physicality of Chloe's world, they do very clearly see her entertaining and fickle twenty-five-year-old mind. Failed meat dish?

So who should read this book? If you like Boston-based food politics, have read all the National Best Sellers since the 1980s, and are dozing on the beach, read on. Otherwise, find the dessert table.

Written by: Jennifer Shaw, April 12th 2008
Tags: food, mystery