REVIEW: Katherine Reay’s LIZZY AND JANE, Of Sustenance and Austen

Lizzy_JaneWith 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.

9 thoughts on “REVIEW: Katherine Reay’s LIZZY AND JANE, Of Sustenance and Austen

  1. I have a conflicted relation with inspies even though I enjoy the women’s fiction set up of this story very much. You’re one of the few people I know who’s best placed to review this book given your knowledge of rom, fic,, and the Church. Good interpretation of food, too.

    Like

    • Aw, thank you! I think you said it best, “conflicted,”: I enjoy a lot of inspirational romance; indeed, I found two Christmas keepers in December that made me so happy! It’s when the inspie, in particular, rears a political agenda that it’ll lose me. This would have been a better book without that secondary storyline … things were tense enough between Nick and Lizzy without this additional bit. The HEA, hint!, however, involves Austen’s Persuasion and makes it sooo good.

      Like

  2. Dear Miss Bates, this Brontëite thoroughly enjoys your thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent reviews and therefore has resolved to overcome her usual reserve to thank you for the feast that is your blog.

    May I only add that reviews that stir conflicted feelings in me about a book are perhaps my favourite kind? Not only do they take me on a fascinating, guided journey into the complex layers of a book and/or reading experience, but they simultaneously provide an opportunity to discover how I work and why I react the way I do. Now I shall have to read a sample of “Lizzy And Jane” and see what effect it has on me!

    Yours sincerely,
    Danielle

    Like

    • Oh, how lovely, a Brontëite … I am one too, though I derived the moniker from Ms Austen. Thank you so much for your kind, generous words: and for taking the time to leave a comment! 🙂

      Lizzy and Jane actually has a pretty weak start, I thought, and gets going “good” only after Lizzy returns to Seattle. But the food theme is set up early and you might find that interesting. In general, this is inspie light, but its implications are what I found most fascinating, its non-liturgical eucharistic perspective. Inspirational romance leaves me all sorts of conflicted, but I just can’t quit it, always searching for that perfect blend of religious faith, liturgical participation, and abiding and worldly love!

      Like

  3. I felt a bit m’eh about this book. What I enjoyed most were those moments when Reay played with various meanings of food and feast have for Lizzie and the other characters. She makes, as you noted, some great connections between the multitude ways we can think about and experience food in our lives (as a religious feast, as statement of caring, as necessity for life, as worldly pleasure, etc.).

    But (and you knew there would be a but, didn’t you) that whole evil woman thing was beyond annoying. I really couldn’t bond at all with Nick because practically the first thing he tells Lizzie about himself is the whole back story of Matt’s conception. It’s exposition at its worse and it made me really uncomfortable with Nick. Reay only gives Lizzie and the reader a rather simplistic binary of good father/evil mother. And that’s the other strange thing about this plotline — Lizzie feels perfectly comfortable with attributing motives to Matt’s mother without even meeting her. And clearly Reay wants us to agree with Lizzie’s reading of the situation. But I just can’t. At least in most Harlequin Presents, you usually get to see the vile other woman with her tight dresses, scarlet finger nails, and cutting remarks about the unsophisticated heroine. But that part of the trope wouldn’t work here, since Lizzie is cast as a sophisticated New Yorker.

    One of the major points of the book is that Lizzie is supposed to be learning to listen and observe and to understand other people and their often complex motivations and needs. Yet when it comes to Matt’s mother, Reay is clearly comfortable with allowing her heroine to pass judgment based on other people’s accounts of this woman’s actions. Her badness for wanting an abortion marks her clearly as someone who doesn’t deserve empathy or understanding — and so Reay refuses to grant her any in the novel.

    There were other niggles for me — one was why is it that characters in this type of book only read classic literature? I mean I love Austen, am fond of Dickens, and am okay with Hemingway, but why aren’t people in these books ever reading say Alice Munro or Marilynne Robinson or Kazuo Ishiguro or contemporary genre fiction?

    Like

    • Argh, I love your comment so much I wish I’d said it like this myself. It’s so true what you say about Matt’s mother: there’s just no room, sadly, in any inspirational romance for understanding, or nuance when it comes to this issue. I prefer to read inspirational romance that leaves it be, but it’s more likely to appear in contemporary inspies than historical, for obvious reasons. What is contradictory in Matt’s mother’s portrayal is that she did go through with the pregnancy; she did help Nick do what he deemed was the right thing, even if she didn’t stick around. It just seems, yes, like you noted, like I did in my review, that she couldn’t do anything right because she’d once contemplated having an abortion.

      I didn’t dislike Nick vis-à-vis Lizzy: I thought he was pretty wonderful with her … until the end, when I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to get back together with Matt’s mother and dumped Lizzy, or did he? This was not clear. I also thought that Nick beat himself up too much over the fact that he’d had unprotected sex. I mean he did take on his son’s entire care and is obviously a loving, devoted father.

      I think you make an interesting point about the literature that these characters read too. I guess they don’t read Munro, Robinson, etc. because writers such as they would challenge some of Reay’s novel’s assumptions? It seems like these “great books” choices keep the themes in their comfort zone?

      Gosh, thanks for leaving such an awesome comment!

      Like

  4. This is a lovely, thoughtful review. I recently discovered your blog (and pretty much read my way through it in its entirety) and you write such nuanced, generous commentary. I’m also glad to have you to turn to when it comes to reviewing the occasional inspie, a genre I’m hypothetically open to but also extremely wary of. (And I think you’re absolutely right about the reason the characters in this novel reach back to older literature: a characteristically astute observation, Miss Bates!) So I appreciate this review, but also just wanted to thank you for the quality of your blog as a whole.

    Like

    • And thank you for those generous and kind words! The Internet gets a bad rap, and deservedly so at times, but it’s been a blessing to be able to carry this blog with me and share my reading and thoughts. It’s also so nice to know, in a comment such as yours, that there are kindred spirits in the world. 🙂 Every post is a labour of love, apropos of this maligned and wonderful genre that we love and read and write about.

      I think that your “wary, but open” approach to inspirational romance is the best way to approach it. It’s a problematic sub-genre, contradictory in places, more often than not insular, but there are still good writers in it and writers outside of it who skirt it, there are books worth reading. I’m glad I can provide a little of that consideration in a reader’s so rich, but precious-in-leisure-time, world.

      Like

  5. Pingback: MINI-REVIEW: Fiona Harper’s MAKE MY WISH COME TRUE, Or THE HOLIDAY Meets SHIRLEY VALENTINE | Miss Bates Reads Romance

Comments are closed.