“Ms. Pinneo shouldn’t give up. Julia’s Child is a breezy, readable addition to the chick-lit shelf, and the plot does canter satisfactorily in the last 50 pages with a couple of surprise twists (plus one obviously telegraphed red herring) at the end. There are undoubtedly more and better novels for Sarah Pinneo to whip up from organic cottage cheese, finely grated yellow summer squash, and unsweetened cocoa powder.”
Sarah Pinneo is probably a great cook. Her recipes for apple-and-cheddar “muffets” (muffins) and squash-carrot-raison muffet bread sound delicious, as well as healthful and kid-friendly.
So why not build a fictional kitchen around those recipes? Use organic food to sweeten the standard plots of motherhood vs. career and purity vs. selling out. It’s not a bad concept. Something similar worked in Like Water for Chocolate.
Thus has Sarah Pinneo produced Julia’s Child, the story of a yuppie Manhattan mom named Julia Bailey who is struggling to make a go of her natural-food startup while the nanny defiantly takes her two adorable preschoolers to McDonald’s and a Big Conglomerate considers buying her business.
Sadly, however, Ms. Pinneo—a food journalist in her day job—falls into the common traps of the beginning (and sometimes not-so-new) novelist:
• One-dimensional stock characters. In addition to the yuppie mom juggling kids and high-pressured career, there’s the street-smart Latina sidekick; Julia’s overly critical and manicured mother; the marathon-running, Baby Einstein-raising neighbor; the adorably lisping toddler; and the sexy, understanding husband with eyes that crinkle at the corners, always ready with a glass of wine.
• No plot tension. Any potential crisis is resolved within a chapter or, at most, two. The nanny is missing? Oh, she just fell asleep on the subway. The entire set-up for a crucial trade-show display is confiscated as a fire hazard? No problem; an even better ensemble is immediately available, for free.
• Cliches galore. Julia “beat a hasty retreat,” but then “took a deep breath” and “soldiered on”—all within the first seven pages. And it rarely gets any fresher. At one point, Julia worries that if she uses a certain photo on her website, “the cliché police might come and arrest me.” Indeed.
• TMI. It’s really not necessary to quote entire conversations verbatim. For instance, you can omit “This is Julia Bailey” and “Good morning, Ms. Bailey.”
• Self-conscious cuteness. Julia’s Child. Peas on Earth Risotto. Enough said.
Maybe the book is meant as satire? It does sound like it’s satirizing the Baby Einstein-raising neighbor and the audience of Park Slope moms all simultaneously nursing their babies such that “every woman in the room had one breast exposed.”
On the other hand, the author seems quite serious—in fact, self-righteous—about Julia’s disdain for fast food and Halloween candy. Or, as she puts it, “The deluge of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial colorings makes my skin crawl.” (See above re: clichés.)
In fact, Julia’s Child will probably leave readers feeling more inadequate and ecologically impure than before they started, because their Thanksgiving turkey isn’t “a locally raised, organic bird from heirloom breeding stock.”
And if readers want to root for Julia, it’s also hard to empathize much with her constant worry about the money she is losing on her business when she and her husband own a three-bedroom apartment in a doorman building in a fashionable neighborhood of Manhattan, plus a country house and a farm in Vermont; plus they have a live-in nanny, and she pays the Latina assistant $40,000 a year.
Still, Ms. Pinneo shouldn’t give up. Julia’s Child is a breezy, readable addition to the chick-lit shelf, and the plot does canter satisfactorily in the last 50 pages with a couple of surprise twists (plus one obviously telegraphed red herring) at the end. There are undoubtedly more and better novels for Sarah Pinneo to whip up from organic cottage cheese, finely grated yellow summer squash, and unsweetened cocoa powder.