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Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Delicious! is Ruth Reichl's debut fiction.  Although Reichl is a well known food writer who has published several non-fiction books, I hadn't heard of her before nor read any of her books.  I first read the excerpted first chapter of this book in a magazine.  I forget which one.  Good Housekeeping, maybe?  I enjoyed reading this book, and all aspects of food permeate throughout the novel--really food is almost another character.  One thing that bothered me was that we find out that Billie's given name is Wilhelmina, but we only know Genie as Genie.  What was Genie a nickname for?

Billie is used to living in the shadow of her older sister, Genie.  She looks up to her, she idolizes her, she adores her older sister, and Billie is more than happy for Genie to take up all the attention of everyone they meet everywhere.  Genie is smart, beautiful, popular, and perfect in every way.  As young girls, the two sisters started a bakery that quickly became famous for its delectable treats that were both visually arresting (thanks to Genie's talents) and mouthwateringly delicious (thanks to Billie's talents).  The sisters' partnership was a match made in business heaven, and the bakery was only shuttered when both girls went off to the same college where Genie continued to outshine Billie.

Billie quits college a year short of graduation, picks up and moves across the country to New York City to take a job as the assistant/secretary to the editor of Delicious! magazine (to be honest, that exclamation point really annoyed me throughout the book).  After her initial trial period at the magazine, Billie's position becomes permanent as she starts contributing articles for publication in each month's 'book.'

It's clear from the beginning of the book that Billie has run away from something in her past, and it is something that she avoids talking about or sharing with any of her new friends in the big city.  She's put physical distance between herself and her home and insists on keeping an emotional distance between herself and her family as well.  It's also clear that something has caused an estrangement between Billie and Genie and that whatever happened is that which caused Billie to run away.

Fortunately for Billie, she meets a motley crew at the magazine where she works during the week and is adopted into a second family at Fontanari's, the Italian, family run cheese and deli shop where she works weekends.  She's settled into her new life, writing for the magazine and building up a writing portfolio when that all abruptly comes to a halt when the magazine is suddenly shuttered.  Billie temporarily stays on at the magazine to answer its reader hotline, but for the most part she's become unmoored and uncertain about her future.  Then one day she unlocks the magazine's mysterious library and in its archives discovers the World War II era letters of Lulu Swan, a girl from Ohio, who corresponded with the legendary chef, James Beard throughout the war.  Billie works on a deadline to locate all the letters that have been mysteriously hidden among thousands of letters that span decades of reader correspondence.

The letters give Billie a welcome distraction, and they also help her work through the heavy and emotional baggage she's carried with her from California.  Together with a former colleague from the magazine, Billie works to uncover all the letters, the mysteries of why they were hidden and by whom, while she undergoes a physical and emotional transformation.  As Billie immerses herself in the mysteries of the letters, Lulu's fate, and the history of the mansion that housed the magazine's headquarters, she also begins a personal journey out of the shadows of her sister's perfection.  She learns that her sister had her own struggles about which those closest to her knew nothing.  As Billie learns some of her sister's secrets, she also learns to let go of her sister, of her grief, and of her need to live in the shadows, unnoticed.  She learns to embrace her own unique talents, personality and beauty.

Overall, this was a good book and a page turner while Billie's on the hunt, first for the letters, and then for Lulu herself.  The world of food, baking and cooking also added another dimension to a story populated with colorful characters.  I'm not gonna lie, I wasn't too far into the book before I figured out why Billie and her sister, Genie, are estranged.  And the slow burning romance between Billie and another character was another part of the story that the reader could see coming from the beginning of the book.  Despite, or rather partially because of these two elements, the book was hard to put down because just as much as you want to find out what happens to Lulu, you also want to find out just what happened between Billie and Genie and what happens with Billie and her beau.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

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