When Queenie Wake fled Texas for brighter lights, she never imagined she’d be back. Her fantasy life working as a chef in New York City wasn’t all she’d imagined, sure, but it was better than wandering North Star pitied as one of two daughters her pistol of a mother left behind. And running from Everett, her first love, seemed easier than ever dealing with the pain of his marrying someone else.
But life has changed. After an incident in a New York kitchen, Queenie finds herself unemployed and homeless in one fell swoop. Crawling back to Merry Carole, her older sister, is the only sensible option — at least until she gets on her feet. Soon she accepts a unique position: cooking death row inmates’ last meals at a nearby prison.
The job is hard. And weird. And she has fellow prisoners for sous chefs, but they diligently — and quietly — work on anything Queenie asks. Between the struggle to create the “perfect” last meal for these doomed souls, dealing with Everett’s reappearance in her life and trying to balance the judgment of her community with her own dreams, Queenie is in a bind. And there’s just one question on everyone’s minds: will she finally stay, or will she go?
Liza Palmer’s Nowhere But Home is an entertaining story I couldn’t put down, even when I eventually wanted to smack Queenie in the head for being such a numbskull. (I have that reaction pretty often.) As much about the roles and expectations of family as it is about accepting love, Palmer’s novel is layered and compelling.
As our star of North Star (sorry, that was cheesy), Queenie is the youngest child of a notorious town harlot who met an untimely end years before. Long shadowed by her mother’s seedy life and dramatic death, Queenie wants to avoid her legacy when possible — except in the kitchen. A famed cook just like her mama, Queenie still fields requests for the Number One: her mom’s signature dish. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for this elusive mother, a woman who named her daughter “Queen Elizabeth” so no one could turn their nose up at her. She obviously had issues, poor parenting among them, but had to have done something right to have such kindhearted girls.
Because make no mistake: Queenie is kindhearted. She doesn’t want you to think so, and she’d die before you told her such a thing, but this woman — a narrator who has tried so hard to escape the past, to harden her heart, to avoid pain and confrontation — is really just a broken shell. It takes coming home to North Star, her sister and her star quarterback nephew to begin to put the pieces together again.
“Friday Night Lights” and the Texas football atmosphere are mentioned on the back cover . . . and that scared me a bit. Far from a sports fanatic, the idea of an entire town flipping out over football is foreign to me. But I understand that, you know, Sports Are Great and all; I’m just a book nerd. But Palmer doesn’t go overboard. Queenie’s nephew, Cal, has finally brought honor to the Wake family name — and no one in North Star is psyched about it. But I thought the town dynamics were well-played and interesting, and I wanted to slug the busybodies trophy wives who couldn’t stand to see Merry Carole and Cal happy. What a bunch of jerks.
Overall, this novel is very . . . balanced. Equal parts family dynamics, romance, friendship and dealing with an unsettling past, none of the many plot threads overwhelmed the others. Just as I was getting a little irked with the back-and-forth between Everett and Queenie, we flip over to Queenie dealing with her tumultuous past. Or dealing with the rude parents of her nephew’s teammates. Or pondering her next move. It was easy to read, fast-paced but introspective, and that’s just not something I see too often.
You know, honestly? I’d originally slapped a 3-star rating on this one and called it a day. Though I liked the book, I didn’t think it really resonated with me. But I finished it more than a week before penning this review, and so many details — and emotions — came flooding back just now. It’s rare that a seemingly lighthearted story gives me so much to chew on . . . and that bumped this one up for me. You know, I really liked it. It was really good.
Fans of women’s fiction, small-town dynamics, Texas-set novels and stories that ponder what it means to let go will find much to mull over with Nowhere But Home. Queenie is a heroine as unique as her name, and I wouldn’t hesitate to add this one to your burgeoning to-be-read stack. It’s worth it.
4 out of 5!