Elizabeth LaBan * Lake Union Publishing * January 5, 2016 * 313 Pages
It’s fall, and Lila and her family have just moved to Philadelphia, so that her husband, Sam, can start his dream career as a restaurant critic. In order to make his dream possible, however, Lila has had to quit work and stay at home with their two young children. While she–of course–loves her babies, a part of her longs for her old life, the one in lively New Orleans with a blossoming, high-stakes career and fewer family responsibilities. To make matters worse, Sam has made her promise that she will keep a low profile (to him this means having no friends at all) in their new city so that his secret identity as a critic won’t be compromised. The book follows Lila’s family, and especially Lila’s relationship with Sam, over one year as they attempt to find balance in their new roles.
Truthfully, I thought I was going to love this book. The premise intrigued me, and I really enjoy novels about food, restaurants, and chefs. (Kitchens of the Great Midwest is one of my favorite books of 2015.) And author LaBan can write! In the first few pages, she creates memorable and relatable characters who are engaging and have depth. LaBan’s writing is descriptive, but never verbose. She’s thoughtful, calm, and observant, but not tedious. This book had all the right ingredients to be something great.
The problem is that all this goodness never goes anywhere! I read the book on my Kindle, and the first 90% (!) is the same issue played out over and over again. The basic scenario is this: Lila is bored and lonely, but Sam doesn’t want Lila to make friends with ANYONE, lest his identity be discovered. Lila never confronts Sam; she just tries harder to be invisible…but then also secretly tries to make friends. And then Sam yells at her. So she promises to be more careful. But then she secretly tries to make friends again. And then Sam yells at her…again. And this goes on for hundreds of pages.
I think this book could have been much stronger if it had been about half as long. (A part of me wonders if LaBan was so fixated on the idea of following Lila for a whole year, four full seasons–fall, winter, spring, and summer–that she added more fluff just to keep that vision going.)
More troubling, in my opinion, though, is that Sam, as a character, becomes downright ridiculous by the end of the book–which means the story itself kind of becomes ridiculous, too. I still don’t understand why Sam insists on all the intense secrecy and disguises. I mean, he exists, right? He has a family and lives in a house in a neighborhood. People are going to find out who he is; there is no stopping that. It was never believable to me that he (as a non-abusive man) would tell his strong and capable wife that she isn’t allowed to have a job or ANY friends. And I especially could not believe that this strong and capable woman would just accept being treated that way. The more I read, the more the relationship between Lila and Sam became less and less plausible.
In short, while The Restaurant Critic’s Wife initially showed promise, the story and the characters became too contrived. I kept turning pages, hoping for more, but it just never came. Even the ending, which did offer a bit of action and resolution, was unrealistic and disappointing. If you are looking for an enjoyable food-related novel, do yourself a favor: skip this one and check out Kitchens of the Great Midwest instead.