It’s rare that I finish a book with no clearcut reaction to it, but such is the case with Apron Anxiety, the latest in blog-turned-memoirs saturating the market. (Ignore the dig; I’m just jealous.) At various points in Alyssa Shelasky’s story, she upends her life, learns to cook and falls in love — and I alternated between fascinated and crazy turned off by her. But I never put the book down.
Successful writer Alyssa Shelasky’s New York is a glittery, shiny place — and one she never planned to leave. She’s very close to her family, has an excellent group of friends — and it’s her gig at People magazine that introduces her to celebrities and other influential people, including a “Top Chef” contestant who catches her eye.
After microwaving her meals for most of her life, Alyssa’s new beau — referred to only as “Chef” — pulls her into the wild and rollicking culinary world. As their tornado of a romance progresses, Alyssa upends her life and follows Chef to Washington, D.C., where he’s opening his own restaurant. Inspired by his profession and hoping to not look so obtuse to his kitchen-god friends and contacts, Alyssa uses her sudden influx of downtime to get serious about cooking. And the results are different than she anticipated.
My foodie background and love of all things dessert — plus, you know, those aforementioned that blogger-turned-author connection — inspired me to pick up Apron Anxiety, and Shelasky’s open writing style drew me in immediately. Regardless of how I felt about her decisions, Alyssa always seemed open about her motives. The stickier parts of the narrative came as her relationship with Chef progresses, and Apron Anxiety is one of those juicy books that felt like peeking into someone’s journal. Or, since this is 2012 and all, someone’s blog.
And that’s because it is. Shelasky detailed her adventures learning to cook on her website of the same name, and many of her stories had the feel of a woman hunkering down to tap out anecdotes over a 3 a.m. bottle of wine. Look, I’m not hating; I have a day job as a writer (albeit not for People magazine — holy crap) and blog in my “off hours,” too. It’s not always an easy thing, keeping up with both. But I guess many of the stories just came across as so emotionally distant I couldn’t relate to what Shelasky was going through. She’s so matter-of-fact about everything — even nasty break-ups — that I struggled to figure out how I was supposed to feel.
There were points in Apron Anxiety I thought, “I want to be her.” And then chapters would pass and I would think, “Wow, I could never do what she does.” And then my jealousy would nudge me again with an (ample) hip, and I would be back to envying Shelasky’s life. She seems to have it made: fantastic job; living in an incredible city; excellent support system; new hot guy who is obsessed with her and whisks her off to Greece just because.
And that’s what made it so hard to understand her actions.
I’ve written and re-written this review a few times, mostly because I’m going to try not to seem like a shrew. And Shelasky’s life? It’s hers, obviously. She wrote a book about it and I’m talking about the book, but the tricky thing with memoirs? Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m not discussing characters, but actual people. People who really did these things. And what Shelasky does? Well, it was tough to fathom.
With the world in her metaphorical, New York-shaped oyster, Shelasky leaves it all — her career, her friends, her family — to move to Washington with Chef, a man with whom she’s crazy in love . . . but not completely compatible. When she gets to Capitol Hill, she has nothing to do. And then Apron Anxiety derailed for me, detailing how Chef is just too busy to spend much time with her and she has little to occupy herself aside from redecorating their apartment. That is when she learns to cook: out of necessity. Because she’s bored and lonely and embarrassed to know so little about the world in which her boyfriend is so entrenched. Because she’s far from home and needs something to fill her days until he comes home.
To which I say: why did that happen? Why did you throw everything away for a man?
On a heart level, I get it: she took a chance. She was in love and doing whatever she could to make her relationship work. I wouldn’t have done what she did, but that doesn’t matter . . . except it sort of does. It colored my perception of the narrative. It made me frustrated, and I couldn’t understand why we were supposed to sympathize with her and not Chef. She doesn’t make the guy out to be evil or anything — just, you know, overworked. Unresponsive. Unavailable.
And I’m from the Washington area. I’ve never lived anywhere else. Alyssa’s nose-in-the-air attitude about D.C. and its “scene” grated on me as badly as if you’d shredded my fingers on a mandolin. The word that popped up over and over, blinding me to anything else, was elitist. She seems so spoiled that any empathy I’d once felt for her evaporated. So Chef’s working all the time . . . and yeah, that sucks. But the man is starting a business. It’s hard work. He has a life — and Shelasky desperately needed to get one, too.
And she does. She most definitely does, but it was too little for me — and too late. As a reader, I’d become so disenchanted with her entitlement. For me, the book became a scramble of strange decisions and eye-rolling behavior. Apron Anxiety seemed less about the process by which Shelasky gained confidence as a home cook and more about celebrity name-dropping and promiscuous adventures. And it got a little tiresome.
That being said, I can’t act like I didn’t still enjoy Apron Anxiety. Snide remarks about D.C. aside, Shelasky’s memoir is very entertaining — and foodie fans who love hearing about delicious eats, great wine and the process by which it’s all created will find plenty upon which to feast their eyes. Shelasky’s demeanor was often a turn-off, but passages like this could reel me back in:
After all, everyone cooks for matters of the heart. We’re all in the kitchen because it fulfills a longing inside, whether it’s for inner grace, pure survival, a renewed sense of self, or just the thrill of it — these are the stories that get us there, keep us there, or sometimes take us away. But without the people who have moved us, pushed us, left us, maybe even hurt us, then really, it’s only food. (page 249, advanced reading copy)
And like everyone I’ve ever met who comes from or has lived there, New York City itself holds limitless appeal. Shelasky’s descriptions read like a love letter to the Big Apple and drew me in, too:
But that’s New York. The streets are filled with neon-lit restaurants that taste like nostalgia, glamour, guilt, and goosebumps. If you’ve lived here long enough, every corner booth, deli counter, dive bar, coffee shop, and critic’s darling becomes a Polaroid of your life. (page 30, advanced reading copy)
So here I am: stuck in the middle. Part of me aggravated by a quick read that had me white-hot with annoyance but also still thinking about it after finishing. It inspired some real emotions, you know what I’m saying? I definitely felt something while reading. Shelasky isn’t always a likeable heroine, but she is a real person. Someone I could see sharing a beer and a chat. (Though I’m not sure she’d be up for either with me after this review? Eek.)
If foodie memoirs, bloggers-turned-authors, relationship voyeurism and the plights of 30-somethings finding their way hold appeal, Apron Anxiety is a fast-paced story that had me Googling the principal characters to see what became of them. Reading about real people is a pretty unique experience, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Shelasky’s paramours — especially Chef — feel about their starring roles in her narrative. Guess she owes them a delicious dessert as compensation — and she now has the skills to deliver.
Also: there are recipes. With chocolate.
3 out of 5!