Come with an empty heart, leave with a very full stomach.
On her sixteenth birthday, Holly Maguire is told by her beloved grandmother, known for her fortune-telling prowess, that her “Great Love” will enjoy sa cordula, a traditional Italian dish consisting of . . . well, lamb intestines. Dubious but knowing Camilla would never lead her astray, a much older Holly prepares sa cordula for her boyfriend, a man she loves but feels is pulling away from her.
And, of course, he hates the dish. Dumps her almost on the spot. Heartbroken over losing both John and his young daughter, Lizzie, Holly flees San Francisco for Blue Crab Island, Maine, where her grandmother runs a small Italian takeaway shop and offers cooking classes to island residents.
Well known in the community, Camilla has developed a reputation for her cuisine — and her powers of “knowing” and fortune-telling, an ability of which she doesn’t boast but doesn’t conceal, either. After Camilla’s sudden passing, Holly inherits her grandmother’s business and warm kitchen — but, unfortunately, not her penchant for whipping together delicious meals. Alone and grieving, Holly focuses on learning her grandmother’s recipes, determined not to let Camilla’s business fail. And when Holly’s mother, Camilla’s only daughter, discourages her from trying? Well, Holly just tries harder.
Twelve-year-old Mia appears at The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, as locals have affectionately coined the business, soon after Holly arrives — and offers her services as an assistant during the cooking classes. Seeking acceptance and friendship after her mother abandoned she and her handsome father, Liam, Mia befriends Holly and quickly allows her into the Gellars’ inner circle. And Holly is all too happy to be there — until she feels herself getting a little too close to yet another father-and-daughter duo. Still smarting from John’s rejection in California, Holly has to decide whether to pull away . . . or move forward, fear and all.
A word of caution for those picking up Melissa Senate’s new novel, The Love Goddess’ Cooking School: don’t read on an empty stomach. I’ve issued this caution before, I know, but trust me this one time, friends. Since beginning this warm and engaging novel, I’ve been dreaming of tiramisu, spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, lasagna and ricotta cheese. As someone who feels she must have been Italian in another life (pasta, I love pasta!), the odd stains scarring the pages of my copy may or may not be drool. The prose was just . . . scrumptious. And Senate describes Holly’s creations so well, you’ll want to throw this one down and make dinner every time you finish a chapter.
What I love about this work, Senate’s latest in a long line of great books, is her ability to create likable, friendly and interesting characters who captivate you right from the start. Like the men entranced by the exotic, lovely Camilla Constantina, an Italian immigrant who arrived in America with her young husband and was widowed in the U.S., I was immediately drawn into Holly’s world and felt like I was reading the story of a dear friend. Have I read the running-away-to-find-yourself plots before? Yes, of course. But in Senate’s hands, a familiar story takes on new nuances.
Holly is a bumbling, uncomfortable woman when first we meet her — aching from loss and grief, both in the form of her relationship with John and her grandmother’s unexpected passing; lost as to what to do with her life. Having spent most of her adult years following men from city to city, she has no career or aspirations. She has no calling. And Camilla, when she was living, could tell her little about her future . . . aside from the premonition about sa cordula. She needs guidance. And through her grandmother’s magical recipes, she finds solace and direction.
Liam’s slow pursuit of Holly was magical, too, and felt honest. Though initially attracted to one another, Holly and Liam don’t suddenly find themselves locked in a passionate embrace. There are so many factors to consider: rules to follow; guidelines that should be met. And it takes a whole lot of thinking and analyzing for them to move forward. Of course, when they do? Well. Love can’t happen along someone else’s guidelines . . . sometimes we make the rules up for ourselves.
I’ve read and loved many of Melissa Senate’s novels, including The Solomon Sisters Wise Up, and this was a departure from her usual fare. Still about women, love and family, yes, but there were no sisters here to speak of — and sisters appear often in Senate’s works! I’m happy to report this is my favorite Senate read of all, and a book I’ll still be thinking about in the months to come. Holly is an inspiration.
Now, where’s that tiramisu?
4.5 out of 5!