With a book about food, love, and family, Miss Bates launches her review by eating humble pie. “Never say never” should be Miss B’s mantra regarding romance reading. Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane is mild romance; it’s … GASP … women’s fiction, a fictive genre Miss Bates purports to abhor. Indeed, there’s been scorn-heaping. It’s the type of fiction she’s most likely to DNF. She finds it precious and precious becomes boring and boring becomes the worst kind of sentimental. Reay’s novel skirts close to DNF territory: estranged sisters (sibling relationships have never interested Miss B.), acrimony remaining from their mother’s illness, CANCER, one of the two sisters ill with CANCER herself, confronting the past, each other, and salvaging, or sundering, relationships. It focuses on younger sister, Elizabeth, “Lizzy,” Hughes, 33, moving back to the Pacific Northwest (from New York City where her chef’s career was floundering) to come to terms with people she left behind: retired firefighter dad and especially older sister, Jane. Her journey tries to answer: what is home? What do we owe the people closest to us, particularly those with whom we share strained relations? What is family? From where do we derive meaning and purpose? How do we find God amidst acrimony and failure?
It is the start of the Lenten season for Miss Bates, a season of re-evaluation and reflection, and Reay’s novel was a perfect fit. While suffering from the failure of inspirational fiction to make a tangible, ritualistic participation in church life as essential to defining ourselves as Christians, Reay’s novel nevertheless took a eucharistic perspective through Lizzy’s creative food acts. And her spirit guide, and that of others as well, like her sister, Jane, was Jane Austen. Like food, which serves as healer and binder, literature stands in as such as well.
When Lizzy and Jane opens, Lizzy has lost her cooking mojo. She’s unhappy, nervous she’s lost backing for her restaurant, Feast, and avoiding talking to her ill sister. She leaves to evade her life’s disalignment and hopes confronting her sister helps her regain the cooking magic. Lizzy hasn’t called Jane since her illness, communicating solely through their father. When Lizzy arrives at Jane’s home in Seattle, Jane is not exactly welcoming. But she accepts Lizzy into her home and Lizzy, seeing how ill and weak her sister is, stays, though they bicker and hurt each other, to help in the only way she knows, by taking over the cooking. Lizzy comes to re-evaluate and renew her life, comes to a different understanding of her purpose in taking this on. Reay does a wonderful thing: she has her protagonist learn by trial and error, by taking two steps forward and one step back, by failing. Lizzy’s attempts to cook food that her sister, ill from chemotherapy, can keep down are failures because Lizzy mistakes performance, hers, with understanding and nourishment. She tries to be clever and impressive, focusing on Jane’s love of Austen: “I wanted to create comfortable healthy meals that cooked slow and long, making the flavours subtle – comfortably Regency.” Jane takes one bite and heaves her way to the toilet. Lizzy was showing off; she wasn’t making Jane the centre, rather showcasing her cooking, her abilities.
Lizzy must learn to attune herself to Jane’s wants and needs, not to exhibiting her talents. Lizzy’s food must be devoid of Lizzy’s ego; only that meal can take on healing and nourishing possibilities: “I never asked Jane what tastes good right now, what she thought she could eat, what repulsed her or what she craved. I never asked what the medicines did to her tastes. I only knew what she read. And while it might constitute a start, it wasn’t a complete picture.” Lizzy doesn’t start in a bad place: Austen was what she read to her mother during her illness; it’s what comforts Jane, as Lizzy also takes on the companion’s role during Jane’s chemo sessions. Lizzy reads Austen: they’re the only books Jane wants to hear. Food and Austen and how they are bound up with Lizzy’s relationship to her mother and sister are key to helping Lizzy make sense of and redeem her life.
A simple shepherd’s pie makes Jane ill. Lizzy’s realization about where she went wrong with it is one of Miss Bates’ favourite moments:
There’s a scene in Emma when Emma sends arrowroot “of very superior quality” to Jane Fairfax – and Jane refuses it. Beautiful, self-satisfied Emma had probably never imagined such a thing – a rejection of her work as Lady Bountiful. And for Jane to tell her that she “was not at all in want of anything … ” In other words, Back off, Emma. Who could fathom such a slight? Did you? The question rose unbidden and unwelcomed. I cringed at the link between Emma’s arrowroot and my shepherd’s pie.
In Reay’s interweaving of Austen and food references are some fundamental ideas that she wants to convey. Lizzy’s ability to heal and nourish her sister requires that she is empty of self, of ego. Who doesn’t recognize that exacting of the self? That moment when another’s need says: you know what you have to do, now do it. And how very difficult that is at times: to answer the call of another’s need. Jane, Lizzy’s sister, like Jane Fairfax, rejects Emma-Lizzy’s effort because Emma-Lizzy makes it about herself, not the recipient, but an opportunity to feed her own ego, her sense of superiority and self-worth. Lizzy and Jane is rife with these important moments: moments where Lizzy learns to empty herself and, in that emptying, give of herself by making the other the centre. The key is attentiveness, listening, paying attention to the other person, putting her first. It’s as simple and difficult as that.
As Lizzy’s mother and literary aunt, Jane Austen, guide her, she learns the most important lesson of all. Whether Lizzy handles food, or people, the means to understanding and love lies in making the other the subject, not the object: “Great writers and my mom never used food as an object. Instead it was a medium, a catalyst to mend hearts, to break down barriers, to build relationships.” Lizzy does so, one broken step at a time. She learns to pay attention, to listen, to give way to the other. She learns to nourish instead of cook; she learns to nurture instead of compete: ” … the magic of cooking died long before I recognized its absence – perhaps the day Mom died. And I had lived and worked, and was working now, on nothing more than ambition and technique.” Lizzy identifies the broken-ness of her cooking as the broken-ness of her life: the emptiness of gesture in technique, the self-centred obliviousness of ambition. In one of her final realizations, before things go to hell in a handbasket … again, Lizzy learns the role of food, the eucharistic role of food, from Jane Austen: “Austen … only mentions food as a means to bring characters together, reveal aspects of their nature and their moral fiber … it’s never about the food – it’s about what the food becomes, in the hands of the giver and the recipient.” At the most basic level, food is survival; food, like the entirety of the material world, is imbued with wonder and meaning when it becomes metaphor, especially when the means to that mystical feast is a selfless giving and accepting of love.
But Miss Bates, you’re saying, what of the romance? Where’s the romance? There is a lovely romance in Reay’s novel. Lizzy’s sister, Jane, has a kind of business partner, Nick, a man who takes over her burgeoning social media business until she recovers. Lizzy and Nick share a sweet relationship, a loving, affectionate communication. They admit their attraction. They date. They also understand that Lizzy will return to New York when Jane is better. Nick doesn’t want Matt’s, his son’s heart, or his own, broken when Lizzy leaves. Lizzy and Nick keep it light and platonic. However, Nick is key to Lizzy’s new understanding of food. Nick listens to Lizzy, admires her spirit and loving nature. He takes her to restaurants and markets. He takes her on a picnic. He nurtures what she loves and, in time, loves her. When she’s hurt, he takes care of her. Miss Bates was disappointed when Matt’s mother, who rejected him at birth, returns and this back story becomes an opportunity to deliver an anti-abortion message. This insertion jars. It reads contrived. Miss Bates wishes that inspirational fiction would take Jesus’s words into account when it comes to this issue, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” This is especially true when it’s obvious that Matt’s mother, in the end, is an exploitative villainess. Miss Bates isn’t of the school that says that romance is obligated to endorse political views; romance is like Lizzy’s best meals, to be savoured, considered, enjoyed. Romance, by definition, sustains love, posits family and community and harmony therein. It need not act the mouthpiece, or carry an agenda. Its readers can make up their own minds.
Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane started stilted and went on too long. Lizzy’s realizations and reconciliations were long established by the time she fell back – several times. Maybe that’s what we do: realize something fundamental, thanks to our sloppy even if willing nature, then forget, or ignore the truth of things and have to learn all over again. In a novel, however, it drags. It’s also too bad that the single-dad thread had to take on political import, but it’s still a wonderful, painful, delicious! read. It is apropos that Reay’s beloved Austen says that in Lizzy and Jane is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Katherine Reay’s Lizzy and Jane, published by Thomas Nelson, has been available since October 28th, in your favourite formats, at the usual vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Thomas Nelson, via Netgalley.