Miss Cecily's Recipes for Exceptional Ladies: A Novel
“Traveling Kate’s journey with her offers insightful experience many readers will relate to, expressed through some delightfully snappy prose.”
Intentionally “feel good” books are, by default, predictable. You know there will be a happy ending. But that’s why we read them, and the joy of discovery comes from seeing how somebody else’s problems get happily resolved.
Miss Cecily’s Recipes for Exceptional Ladies delivers that transformation through a refreshing scenario. Well . . . a middle-aged woman disillusioned in love and dissatisfied in her career isn’t an original premise. But Kate Parker’s circumstances, and how she gets into and out of them, offer a combination original enough to engage interest.
Kate is a writer who pays the bills through a grocery store office job where she dreams up catchy marketing copy for food. She’s been there for years and years. Lacking any idea of what better opportunities might be available to her, she’s become resigned and complacent, and values her job merely for the solvency it provides.
She’s also in love. Computer nerd Nick is her ideal companion and lover. That is, until she realizes he’s incapable of giving all that she needs. She tries to justify their differences, but eventually she realizes the affair is hopeless, and half the problem is her own unwillingness to be an independent soul. Instead she lets herself get dragged into codependency, afraid to give it up.
But life has a way of upsetting the best-laid plans, as we all know, and during an estrangement interlude with Nick that presages their final split, Kate gets coerced into volunteering at an old folks’ home to do simple presentations about cooking. There she meets 97-year-old Miss Cecily.
“Cantankerous” is a kind word to describe this willful and jaded old lady. Put more potently by the author: “Cecily’s mind and tongue are sharp as lime juice on an ulcer.”
She also has “a brain the size of a planet and an extraordinary memory.”
What neither Kate nor anyone else realizes is that this elderly spitfire possesses the wisdom that comes from advanced age. Cecily right away senses Kate’s assets and liabilities and sees Kate allowing her liabilities to rule. So Cecily snarkily challenges Kate to reverse direction and reinvent her life using her strengths.
Kate resists at first, being absorbed in self-pity. At the same time, her subdued spirit can’t resist Cecily’s goads, and she finds ways to rationalize responding to them. Bit by bit Kate grows stronger and more focused, taking a while to recognize Cecily’s role in the process but eventually acknowledging and valuing it, and ultimately seeking it.
What makes Kate likable from the start despite her emotional immaturity is her wryly honest self-assessment. For instance:
“She’s never invested in expensive swimwear—why bother? No feat of wardrobe engineering, no high-cut leg could hide the fact that Kate has a normal female body: a big bottom, cellulite, and a relationship with gravity entirely in keeping with her age. Thank goodness she’ll never again have to be naked for the first time in front of a new man.”
(Ha ha, Kate—wait till you see what life has in store for you!)
Kate’s emotional wallowing makes the first part of the book a bit tiresome. The seasoned women likely to be this book’s audience will grasp Kate’s issues right away and might get bored with how long it takes for her to woman-up. An example: “Kate figures Nick’s ongoing silence means there’s a greater than 50 percent chance it’s over. Of course she told him not to call, but he’s meant to see through that; it’s the most basic of ruses.”
It’s also one of the most adolescent of strategies, which one would hope we’d outgrow by Kate’s age (39–40). But Kate’s unsolvable problem is, “Why does [she] have to feel everything so much?”
Kate spends more of the book feeling than thinking. What ultimately turns the tide is the cookbook Cecily gives her: Thought for Food. “It’s like cookbook meets self-help with jokes thrown in.”
It also happens to be Cecily’s life story in disguise.
Through their developing relationship, Kate comes to recognize the parallels not only to Cecily’s life but her own. They slowly merge until Kate acquires the gumption to release what’s been holding her back and venture into a new life more suited to her needs, wants, and skills.
Turns out she really is a writer—not just of vapid product copy but smart and interesting (and profitable) material. When Cecily bequeaths her the rights to her cookbook, Kate takes it on as a project that leads to a new career. Her restored confidence and enthusiasm lead, inevitably, to new romance and improved relationships across the board.
This is the happy ending we know is coming just from the novel’s packaging. Traveling Kate’s journey with her offers insightful experience many readers will relate to, expressed through some delightfully snappy prose.
But the real story belongs to Cecily. And whether her story is going to end happily or tragically adds a subconscious tingle of suspense that keeps us turning pages.