I should warn that there are a couple of the relationships that will be mentioned in this review will be spoilers for School. Sorry about that! Can't be helped if I a to talk about this book at all!
Where School focused on the individual recipes that the characters were being taught which helped to reveal their stories and teach a few life lessons as well. This time around, the cooking lessons aren't as present even though there are still plenty of foodie moments to savour.
The main parts of the story focus on Lilian, the chef who owns the restaurant where all our characters met, her employees Chloe and Finnegan, her accountant Al and his wife Louise, and Isabelle who is an older woman who appears to be losing her faculties and who shares her house with the much younger Chloe.
For me, the strongest aspects of this book were the stories relating to Chloe and Finnegan, Lilian, and Isabelle and her family. When I think about it now, with the exception of Finnegan, they are all the characters that we had already met. In the previous book, Chloe had come out of a bad relationship experience, and that has left her somewhat skittish about boys, or I guess I should say men. Finnegan is the kind of man that you would think it would be difficult to miss given that he is six foot seven tall, but he tends to blend into the background leaving him free to observe the behaviour of those around him. It is only after Finnegan gives her a blue exercise book to write whatever thoughts she wants to write down that Chloe really notices him but she is nowhere near ready to fully trust another man.
Isabelle is fighting a battle on a couple of fronts. She is losing her faculties and she knows it. With Chloe's help she is able to put strategies in place to help her cope on a daily basis but everyone is aware that it is only a matter of time before these coping mechanisms will be insufficient. Her children all live away from her, but her daughter in particular is determined that her mother needs to move out of her house and into care right away. I thought the way that Bauermeister addressed this issue was very touching. Yes, Isabelle's daughter has her mother's best interests at heart, or at least what she thinks the best interests are, but it is a fine line between doing the right thing and trampling on what little dignity Isabelle knows she has. There was a scene with Isabelle's grandson that was so lovely - a small moment in a few pages but so strong emotionally, especially when his mum realised the effect of her actions as a result of the interactions with her own son.
I haven't said a lot about Lilian yet. In School, we met Lilian and got her history, really she was the facilitating character. Not a lot happened for her personally but rather we got her observations of the lives of the other characters. The same cannot be said in this book. Here she is fully part of the story and she has her own section of the plot to navigate. Lilian has now been seeing Tom, the widower from the first book, for some time, but it is something of a surprise to her when their relationship takes an unexpected turn. The biggest issue for the two is whether Tom is over the death of his wife (which was the key factor in why he signed up for cooking lessons in the first place). To be honest, as a reader, I am not sure that I believed that he was totally ready to move on either, or maybe you are never really ready after an experience like that. Rather you just need to make the decision to get on with your life in whatever form that takes.
If I had to pick my favourite part of this book, it was Finnegan and his blue books. Whilst there was a misunderstanding with Chloe that could have been easily resolved with some basic communication, I loved the idea that Finnegan was collecting the stories of the people that he has met, the people who often don't have people left to share their stories with.
Given that I have touched on the things I did like, I guess I should mention what didn't work for me as well, namely the stories of Al and his wife Louise. I just didn't feel as though I connected with either their emotions and their actions, some of which were more than a little odd. I did get that Louise felt invisible in her relationship, and could relate to that feeling, I didn't get the reactions. And the way we were introduced to Al was just a little strange!
Bauermeister is one of those authors whose writing just draws you in so that you are smelling the same scents as the characters, you are savouring the taste of the food with them and when you connect, you are with them as they ride their own emotional roller coasters.
If you read School of Essential Ingredients (which was also published under the title Monday Night Cooking School in some countries) then you will be glad to revisit these characters. I would suggest that it is best to read School before picking this book up, but then again I have never made any secret of the fact that I strongly believe in reading connected books in order!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book via Netgalley
National bestselling author Erica Bauermeister returns to the enchanting world of The School of Essential Ingredients in this luminous sequel.
Lillian and her restaurant have a way of drawing people together. There’s Al, the accountant who finds meaning in numbers and ritual; Chloe, a budding chef who hasn’t learned to trust after heartbreak; Finnegan, quiet and steady as a tree, who can disappear into the background despite his massive height; Louise, Al’s wife, whose anger simmers just below the boiling point; and Isabelle, whose memories are slowly slipping from her grasp. And there’s Lillian herself, whose life has taken a turn she didn’t expect. . . .
Their lives collide and mix with those around them, sometimes joining in effortless connections, at other times sifting together and separating again, creating a family that is chosen, not given. A beautifully imagined novel about the ties that bind—and links that break—The Lost Art of Mixing is a captivating meditation on the power of love, food, and companionship.