The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
restaurantcritics.jpg

The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is the second novel by author Elizabeth Laban, real-life wife to Philadelphian restaurant critic Craig Laban.  In her debut, the 2012 young adult drama The Tragedy Paper, Laban proved a talent for thoughtful, eloquent writing and an ability to conjure unique characters the likes of which readers will not have met before.  The same praise can be given for her newest novel, which shines with Laban’s unique sensibility and skill.

The novel tells the story of Lila Soto, wife to the famed food critic Sam Soto, and the year of their lives following a move to Philadelphia from their beloved New Orleans.  In the year that follows, their family of three becomes a family of four and Lila battles with the challenges of motherhood and marriage alike.  Desperate to go unrecognized in his new city, Sam – a controlling but ultimately well-meaning workaholic – insists that Lila maintain a life of anonymity, forming friendships with only those not involved in Philadelphia’s dining industry.  As luck would have it, everyone Lila meets and finds friendship with seems to either own a restaurant or work at one, making acquiescence to Sam’s demands seem like a life of veritable reclusion – precisely the thing to send a frazzled mother of two over the edge, especially as Lila longs to return to her work as a hotel crisis manager.

I glance around and notice mothers with strollers coming in, sitting for a minute, going out again. Sometimes it’s one mother with a baby, sometimes a group of two or three. I feel a kinship to them. I know that feeling of wandering around with no place to go, looking for civilization.
— Elizabeth LaBan, The Restaurant Critic's Wife

In the end Lila and Sam’s story takes an especially rocky journey as Lila fends off an obnoxious gossip columnist, sidesteps job offers from her former boss, accommodates a screaming toddler, tries to please her obsessive and opinionated husband, and wrestles with the return of an old boyfriend.  The reader is pulled through the fray alongside an exhausted Lila as Sam’s impossible demands create more and more tension.  No one in The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is perfect – except perhaps little baby Henry experiencing his first encounter with ice cream.  Sam is a foodie du jour, and his obsessive antics to retain his anonymity border on the neurotic.  It’s daring of Laban to write a love interest that readers may not, in fact, recognize as a love interest at all; one half-expects the oft-mentioned ex-boyfriend Tom to swoop in and whisk Lila and the kids away to a life where they can go out to a restaurant without fake mustaches and other disguises involved.  But the reality of the novel is that love takes work.  “Sometimes you can’t help the people you like,” Lila says.  “Sometimes you like the people who are inconvenient.”  And sometimes the people you love – whether a husband who would sacrifice a social life for work, or a little girl who would like nothing more than to push her new baby brother right back out the door – are the ones who make you craziest.

The novel packs many a luxurious meal description, which will make food enthusiasts delight; I was sad when Sam’s New Orleans-style Thanksgiving dinner went by without much detail, but the many other examples of culinary adventure make up for it.  It’s a testament to Laban’s writing that she manages to make even Kraft macaroni and cheese sound exotic and alluring.

Laban captures Lila’s fast-paced and fluctuating emotions best of all as she wars with her complex feelings and, with hope and humor, tries to hang on to the life that seems to be careening ever farther out of her control.  The foundation of her romance with Sam plays out in her narrative as Lila flashes back to her passion-filled days in New Orleans, when food was seductive and not a thing to tear away at the fabric of her relationship.  And though it takes a lot of romance to make up for present-day Sam’s erratic, sometimes unfair behavior, Laban paints the portrait of a messy but honest, and strong, relationship. And while most readers could likely do without knowing every time Lila uses birth control or nurses Henry, these things ultimately add truth to Lila’s experience.  Whether or not that truth is necessary in fiction is anyone’s opinion, but for Laban’s story, so closely tied to her real life, it makes sense.  And as a result, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife becomes a tribute to all the less-than-glamorous moments that make up our happily ever afters.


Get the book: Amazon, B&N, IndieBound, public library
Related links: Website - Facebook - Twitter

Outlander: Dragonfly in Amber
©  Starz

©  Starz

A note on spoilers: Please be aware that while I work diligently to avoid extensive spoilers in my recaps, these entries will discuss each episode's plot and may include key details from the show's first season as well as the books on which both seasons are based.

I’ve never been very good at saying goodbye. That’s the hell of it, isn’t it? Whether you want to say goodbye or not, they’re gone and you have to go on living without them. Because that’s what they would want.
— Claire (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber)

With its final episode of the season, Outlander gives us perhaps its most astonishing adventure yet. Named for the book upon which the second season has been based, Dragonfly in Amber managed to somehow set the bar even higher for one of the best dramas on television and one of the most thoughtfully crafted adaptations to ever come along. Performances from cast and crew are as sweeping and majestic as Bear McCreary’s haunting score and Philip John’s direction once again brings Outlander’s story to the viewers with an exquisitely detailed flourish. The result is a finale that serves as the perfect closing chapter to a phenomenal season.

© Starz

© Starz

While the majority of the season has taken us through the 18th century, the final episode guides us across time, taking viewers from the battlefield at Culloden to the foggy atmosphere of Scotland in 1968 where a grown Roger Wakefield meets widowed Claire and her daughter Brianna at the late Reverend Wakefield’s home. Wonderfully adapted by series writers Tonia Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts, the episode reveals characters and scenes that appear in the first chapter of the book. Although that meant fans had to wait all season to officially meet beloved characters Roger and Brianna, the resulting revelation proved to be well worth the wait. This change in the sequence of events works especially well in the adaptation as it keeps key plot details away from audiences experiencing the story for the first time and allows the actors to make reveal these details in their own beautifully choreographed way. Ghosts from the past, ghosts from the future, and all in between touch on Claire’s life in 1968 Scotland as she returns for the first time in twenty years to the place where her life-changing journey began and heartbreakingly ended; or so she believes. While Richard Rankin and Sophie Skelton join the cast as Roger and Brianna, a Scot and American, respectively, about to have their entire worlds rocked by impossible truths, Lotte Verbeek makes a terrific return to the series for the first time since season one, as the story of Geillis Duncan and Dougal MacKenzie finally comes full circle. These additions to the cast all help to make the grandeur of the story fully realized through exceptional performances of heart-breaking sincerity.

Mrs. Graham had warned me not to chase a ghost, and so I hadn’t, but now that I was here, the ghosts were starting to chase me.
— Claire (Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber)
©  Starz

©  Starz

In an extended ninety-minute episode audiences are treated to a fully detailed chapter in Outlander’s broader story. Despite the actual battle of Culloden taking place off-screen, we find ourselves with an entirely immersive experience into how Claire and Jamie prepare to face the bleak reality of history, including a desperate final plot that results in an explosive confrontation between Jamie and Dougal. Unquestionably one of the major pillars of the show’s success, Graham McTavish is once again unmatched in his ability to blur the line between right and wrong as he becomes, in a sense, a villain to Jamie and Claire even as he acts from the center of his moral awareness. Missing from the finale is the other great chameleon of the show, Tobias Menzies in his dual roles as Frank and Jonathan Randall. While Frank’s story has presumably ended with his death in Boston, his goodness of heart is kept alive in Brianna’s remembrances.

It wouldn’t be an Outlander finale – or, indeed, an Outlander episode at all – without the unforgettable performances from the show’s two leads, and in Claire and Jamie’s plight the stars certainly deliver. Although it’s difficult for Caitriona Balfe to top her soul-crushing performance in this season’s Faith, and likewise for Sam Heughan to outdo the traumatic events of last season’s Wentworth Prison storyline, the two are ever up for the challenge to once again immortalize all that millions of fans worldwide love about Diana Gabaldon’s remarkable characters. From first glances to final breaths and the shattering echo of a goodbye, Outlander’s Dragonfly in Amber radiates the unique life and strong heart of a story for the ages.


Follow the show: Starz - Facebook - Twitter - Instagram

Get the book: Amazon - B&N - Indiebound - Public library

 

Outlander: The Hail Mary
CaitrionaBalfeasClaireRandallFraserSamHeughanasJamieFraser-Episode212.jpg

A note on spoilers: Please be aware that while I work diligently to avoid extensive spoilers in my recaps, these entries will discuss each episode's plot and may include key details from the show's first season as well as the books on which both seasons are based.

What good is a rebellion that runs away from a fight? Rupert (Outlander, The Hail Mary)

With the tragic battle of Culloden looming as an ever-closer certainty, Jamie and Claire do everything in their power to frustrate history’s plans in the penultimate episode of Outlander’s second season. As the Jacobite force weakens both in body and in spirit, Jamie is desperate to save the men from certain death at Culloden Moor while Claire meanwhile becomes embroiled in the enfolding of a different breed of tragedy, one that finds her on a similar side with the man she most abhors. Amid the many somber twists of the season’s twelfth episode, lives are lost, choices are made, and countless fragile fates hand in the balance.

Jamie and Claire in Outlander | © Starz
Jamie and Claire in Outlander | © Starz

Aptly titled The Hail Mary, this weekend’s episode resolves around several situations of last requests and desperate acts that will shape the fates of many innocent lives. Written jointly by Ira Steven Behr and Anne Kenney, the story weaves effortlessly between somber grace and emotional conflict. In Jamie we see a man grown through immeasurable strife as he refuses to give up on changing the future; as his entreaties and enticements fall with faint chance on Stuart’s muddled ears, Jamie’s will is tested as strongly as his hope. Others, meanwhile, await a different sort of reckoning. When a quickly failing Colum MacKenzie arrives at the Jacobite camp, we find that he has not journeyed to find peace in reconciliation with his brother, Dougal, but rather to put one last plan into motion which will undeniably break his brother’s heart. Gary Lewis and Graham McTavish have been superbly matched throughout the series as Colum and Dougal, respectively, and in their final scenes together they create a jolting, heartbreaking reflection of true, inevitable loss. The brothers MacKenzie have ever been at odds, yet in their ultimate interaction Dougal finds that his words and feelings of love for his brother come too late. It’s a masterful performance from McTavish that causes the audience to grieve for the character whose intentions so seamlessly slide from good to bad and back again. “My poor brother,” Column tells Claire in a moment of authenticity, “I have been crippled of body, and he has been crippled of mind.”

"I am beyond any injury you could do me." "Injury I do you? What about all the pain you've caused me in this bitch of a life we've shared?" "Your life is your own. I take no blame for it." Colum and Dougal MacKenzie (Outlander, The Hail Mary)

Murtagh and Claire in Outlander | © Starz
Murtagh and Claire in Outlander | © Starz

Under the direction of Philip John, the always remarkable supporting cast delivers some of their best work in The Hail Mary. As true as it is for the scenes between the MacKenzies, so it also is with the very complicated branch of the Randall family tree. An unexpected meeting with Mary in an Inverness apothecary leads Claire to the bedside of a fatally ill Alex Randall along with the revelation of a secret that will forever tie Mary to the Randall family. Living in a boarding house where Alex cannot recover even strength enough to breathe freely, the young couple is supported by none other than the deadly of the two Randall brothers. The result of the circumstances finds Claire in a position to once again face Black Jack and to yet again work her abilities in his favor. With a bargain struck between them, Jack agrees to give Claire information about the British army in exchange for her treatment of Alex, but when a deathbed request is made, Jack becomes undone in a way we have not seen him before. For the first time, Claire and the audience are baffled by the conflicting senses of good and evil in the sadistic Jack Randall; through Alex’s love for his brother and Jack’s shockingly reciprocated compassion we see the inner battle being fought inside an unforgivable man.

"The woman I am now is not the woman I once was." Claire (Outlander, The Hail Mary)

From this unusual perspective of good conflicting with evil we see Black Jack’s struggle to honor his brother’s request even as the beast inside him threatens to inevitably lash out. Whether the good Alex sees in him is a deception or a true glimmer of humanity, the audience is left – along with Claire – to wonder. Characteristically, Jack reacts to every moment of fear or sadness with a venomous combination of anger and cruelty. It’s perhaps at his most pained that he seeks to cause the most unthinkable pain for others; and now Mary’s fate, along with that of her child and Frank’s own fate by extension, lies tremulously in the grasp of it.

This episode takes us to the concluding chapter of Book Two as the 90 minute finale brings viewers to Culloden Moor and into the future, where we will finally meet beloved book characters Brianna and Roger. Dragonfly in Amber comes to its final pages on July 9th, but viewers can relive the sumptuous experience of the full season when Starz airs all twelve previous episodes next weekend. In the meantime, we anticipate what will surely be a blockbuster finale.