Upon the release of this book, Nicky Pellegrino, a Briton of Italian descent who lives in New Zealand, gave interviews to a handful of media outlets in which she discussed being raped in her flat by a knife-wielding stranger some years ago.
She told the New Zealand Herald that she had never expected to talk publicly about the experience, until she wrote her new book, Recipe for Life. In the first chapter, the protagonist, Alice, finds herself challenged and changed by the very incident that occurred in Pellegrino’s life. Pellegrino said she was speaking out, and gave this experience to her character, because of all the “silent survivors” who never tell their stories – and also to show that life is made up of many things and is not defined by one bad experience.
With Alice, whose chapters (in the first person) alternate with the omnisciently narrated chapters of Babetta, an elderly Italian woman living next to an abandoned villa in the southern town of Triento (a fictionalized version of Maratea in Basilicata), Pellegrino sets out to demonstrate just that.
In the wake of her rape, which occurs as Alice’s former boyfriend Charlie sleeps downstairs, Alice finds herself listless and lost. With no culinary skills, she takes a job in a local Italian restaurant in London, working her way up from vegetable prep to the pasta station. The head chef, Tonino, recognizes her talent, but the combination of her lack of formal training and her malaise prompt him, when the opportunity arises, to encourage her to decamp to Italy for the summer, where her friend Leila’s mother has bought an old villa.
Villa Rosa is – you guessed it – the house next door to Babetta’s, and Triento, it so happens, is Tonino’s home town. His parents, Raffaella and Ciro, own a café there, while his brother Lucio, with whom he has a tense, competitive relationship, runs a pizzeria. Alice is given the chance to work in both establishments and learn the mouth-watering ins and outs of Italian cooking, and swiftly develops a firm bond with Rafaella and an enormous crush on Lucio, who, in Pellegrino’s description, possesses a smile like a devastatingly sexy Mediterranean version of the Cheshire Cat.
But, oblivious to her friend’s desires, the gorgeous black-haired Leila swoops in and snaffles the luscious Lucio. It is nothing more than a summer fling for man-eating Leila, however, and the two return to London on amicable terms, but quickly go their separate ways. Alice resumes her on-off relationship with the dependable Charlie.
So far, so well-written but fairly middle-of-the-road. Where the novel picks up steam is with the sharp decision on Pellegrino’s part to jump 10 years ahead. Leila is now a successful novelist and Alice, having made an interesting romantic choice, is living quietly in the English countryside. When Leila’s mother dies, Leila extends an olive branch to Alice, inviting her to spend one last summer at Villa Rosa before it is sold.
Recipe for Life is Pellegrino’s fourth novel. It would – and this is not faint praise – make a very good film; Pellegrino has struck a rich vein of dramatic potential in her characters and their environment, and her writing is smooth. Europhile readers should be advised that she knows exactly when to pause the action for a lunch of fresh seafood and ciabatta.
This review was previously published on Coast.co.nz.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Published by Hachette