I have always enjoyed fiction that portrays ordinary life while encompassing a touch of the extraordinary. Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, and Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel, are two that instantly spring to mind – and yes, as you might be able to tell from these examples, I also adore food-based novels. In screenwriter J. D. Barrett’s debut novel, The Secret Recipe of Second Chances, I discovered an irresistible combination of food, magic realism, and romance, all wrapped up in a generous amount of charm, wit and excitement.
Chef Lucy Muir has left her cheating husband, and has walked away from their restaurant as a result. Now, once again living with her mother, in an attempt to pick up the pieces of her life and get her career back on track, she decides to open a pop-up restaurant. The venue: Fortune, once one of Sydney’s most popular dining venues.
With the help of friends and family, Lucy finds a second lease on life in Fortune. Now that his restaurant is re-opening, so too does Frankie Summers, the charismatic resident ghost and former owner. As he helps Lucy in the kitchen, old recipes are reborn, and the truths about his life – and death – start to come to light. And, after a life filled as much with women as with food, has he finally met the right one a little too late?
An easy read, The Secret Recipe of Second Chances was engaging from the get go. Barrett’s experience writing for television comes through in the pace of this story, as well as in the many surprises along the way. There’s mystery, murder, ghosts and some rather unsavoury scenes written neatly into a book that is, in many ways, a quintessential chick-lit tale (about a girl struggling to make another go at it after being dealt one too many hard-knocks, and then she meets a man, but it’s complicated), and it all works.
The characters are equally mishmash and entirely memorable and, other than Leith (Lucy’s ex), completely loveable. They bring life and laughter to the book at every turn, from Bill, the homeless man who lives outside Fortune, to Serge, the aging sous chef who used to work for Frankie all those years ago and has crawled out of the woodwork to help Lucy. I empathised with Lucy and desperately wanted to see her make it (and show that awful Leith!). I was utterly charmed by Frankie, and there was a big part of me that hoped for some big romantic Ghost moment between him and Lucy, and that the ending would be more magic than real.
The Secret Recipe of Second Chances was not at all what I expected, but utterly what I wanted. I couldn’t put down this refreshingly unique, fun and well-written book – a reminder of the fine literary talent that Australia boasts. And for the foodies, there is the added bonus of delicious recipes dotted throughout the book.