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!
ISBN: 0307952142 ♥ Goodreads ♥ LibraryThing ♥ Amazon ♥ Author Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review
17 thoughts on “Book review: ‘Apron Anxiety’ by Alyssa Shelasky”
I really liked the image of shredding your hand in a mandolin. I know that a mandolin is used to grate things, but I kept picturing a hand in the musical instrument. Nice.
Ha! Thanks. Sometimes books provoke strange responses from me, I’ll admit.
This book sounds emotionally exhausting! I’m more intrigued by your frenetic response than by the actual book. I think I’m not so interested in the 30-something ‘cooking to find myself’ memoir because I couldn’t stand reading Julie and Julia for more than 10 pages (but I loved the movie) I do want to know what top chef contestant she followed. Spike? Was it Spike?!
According to the Google Machine, it was Spike!
And you’re right: my response was incredibly frenetic. I still haven’t decided how I feel about this one. And sometimes those books are the ones that stay with you longest.
I kinda had the same reaction to Julie and Julia. It was funny as hell and easy to read, and all that food and cooking and everything. But…I didn’t like her all that much. (Oh and I also knew that she ends up having an affair and leaving her husband in her second memoir, so that didn’t help.) I guess these books just have to be chalked up to pure entertainment value and that is all.
Quite true, Sandy, and you’re very right about Julie and Julia. I actually liked the movie version of that adaptation and could actually see Apron Anxiety making an interesting film.
Meh, I can see two things right off the bat that are going to grate on me.
1. I will not ever understand people who throw everything away in a flash for a lover. I suppose that I’m too pragmatic for that but I know that I would not go into this book with good feelings. I just don’t “get” it.
2. I hate when people trash DC. DC is not NYC nor will it ever be NYC nor is it trying to be DC. DC is awesome in its own way and I am very, very protective of it. Spike Mendelsohn is already on my “bad word list” as he said some nasty things about the DC restaurant scene and the city itself. I’m definitely a little biased when it comes to my city 😉
I’m right there with you: two Megs championing D.C.! 🙂 I’m also very protective of the city and take great offense when people mouth off about how much it “sucks.” Yes, we have our problems — but so does every metropolitan area. I saw some comments were about D.C.’s “second tier” status and wasn’t thrilled about that, either.
My pragmatic side would also prevent me from ever running off to start a new life on a whim, let alone start a new life contingent on a romantic relationship. Not my style. I tried to put that aside while reading, but it aggravated me.
Your reviews are so entertaining that it did not surprise me one bit to find out you’re a writer! But, honestly, everything that grated on your nerves would grate on mine too. I have better things to do than read about a woman who exposes her life out there just for the sake of telling us she learned how to cook for the sheer sake of fighting boredom? No, thank you.
I agree it can be hard to write reviews of memoirs and not feel like you are criticizing the person. They always take me the longest to write because I analyze over ever word but you did a great job. I would have wanted to read this book too but now after reading your review I think I might have the same reaction to the book as you did so perhaps I should skip this one.
Hummm sounds like she might bug me a bit too. Thanks for the honest review.
I got excited at first ’cause I was hoping for another Life from Scratch.
Your review reminds me of the “parenting” books by Rebecca Eckler. In Wiped!, she has a baby and then comes down with post-partum depression. At the time I thought that this could have been interesting, but the solution she proposes is three months in Maui with a full-time, live-in nanny. Practical for the rest of us? Not so much. It’s disappointing when a sense of entitlement stops a book’s potential, and like talesofwhimsy, I would have picked up Apron Anxiety if it was a more genuine read.
Interesting review. I have a hard time deciding whether I would like this one or not based on your comments! I really like the quotes though, so I’ll put it on my “maybe” list.
I think you are sort of circling around the concept that bloggers do not necessarily translate well to authors no matter how cute and quirky they are on their blogs. But, anymore, publishers don’t care. If they have a huge audience and can put a comma in the right place, then they MUST be a writer, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong. This translates to readers feeling disconnected, I think, because there is a lot more to writing a book than just saying what happened.
Perhaps I’m just bitter, but I don’t think so. Having read and analyzed A LOT of books in college as an English Lit major, I feel like I’m semi-qualified to have an opinion on such topics. AND, I feel like I’ve seen this a lot. Mostly, blogs just say what happened. If what happened is interesting enough, we stick around. A good book, however, goes that one step further. It says what happened, yes, but it also tells us how what happened to them applies to what happened or what could happen to us. A good book makes us care because it isn’t talking about the character or the author, it’s taking about the universal “us.”
Definitely. A fun blog does not a fabulous book make, and I frequently had to check myself when reflecting upon the book — was I just jealous that this popular blogger got a book deal (and I haven’t, obvs)? Or was it deeper than that? It’s deeper, I concluded. It just didn’t work for me on several levels.
Well, I too read this book and I loved it!!! It was a real story that reads seemlessly.. It was was part funny, part sad, and pretty spicy too!… So, she didn’t get along with DC. – Big deal. Just because some of you live there, you have a problem with the story? Please. Its a story that asks: Does love “really” concur all? – Great topic. Great writing by a new author. Folks, do yourself a favor and buy it!
Glad you liked it, Jay. That’s what’s great about reading: there’s a book out there for everyone. Shelasky is a skilled writer — just didn’t jive with this one.
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