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.
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.