The Restaurant Critic’s Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Sigh. I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed by such a well-written book.
On a technical level, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is nearly flawless. Ms. LaBan’s style flows nicely and her descriptions, while a bit heavy-handed at times, are effective. She even does a good job at piecing various elements of the story together. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t much of a story for her to work with.
As you’ll see in the synopsis provided by the publisher, The Restaurant Critic’s Wife is about just that. Lila is married to Sam Soto, Philadelphia’s newest and most sought after food critic, and she’s having a hard time adjusting to her new life. In less than five years, she’s gone from workaholic to a reluctant stay at home mom to a toddler and a newborn, a lonely stranger in a new city. Sam, paranoid about his identity being revealed, becomes increasingly controlling as what little bit of plot there is unfolds, forbidding Lila from returning to work, making friends, or even leaving the house without him.
There are several issues that I have with this book. First off, from a storytelling perspective, it’s just downright dull. There are entirely too many minor characters that add next to nothing to the storyline. Several of the neighbor ladies could have been combined into one or two characters with no major loss. The woman who is supposedly Lila’s best friend in the world is only briefly mentioned, while people she supposedly hates who add nothing to the story are mentioned over and over again.
Second, the book could have been much, much shorter. Much of the time is spent on episodic tangents that don’t really seem to contribute to the story at large. Pages and pages are filled with the minutiae of Lila’s domestic affairs–there are about one hundred detailed accounts of her breastfeeding her son, tons of her daughter whining and wanting to change clothes, a huge chunk of a chapter devoted to her trying to get the kids in the car to go to Sam’s aunt’s house for tea. I have the feeling that Ms. LaBan wanted to convey the utter exhaustion and tedium that is the stay at home mother lifestyle, and if that hunch is correct, she definitely succeeded. While I applaud her abilities in this regard, it was more frustrating than enlightening.
Third, ninety-nine percent of the conflict in this story could be resolved with a few quick conversations and a hug or a handshake. So much of Lila’s inner dialogue goes over how frustrated she is by Sam’s asinine rules, how much she wants to return to work, how much she wants to make friends, but she hardly ever opens her mouth to have an honest conversation. Granted, Sam is incredibly childish and difficult, so the success of said attempt is questionable at best, but it would have been nice to see her try a little harder to get through to him. Also, I’m still not quite clear on why Sam didn’t just operate under a pen name for his reviews, if he was worried about restaurant employees giving him special treatment. The buzz surrounding him didn’t seem entirely believable either–I’m no expert, but I found it highly unlikely that non-foodies gave a rat’s behind what Sam thought of restaurants, anyway. Most of the places he visited seemed a little high-brow for an average American family.
Now, we get to the huge problem I have with this book: Sam.
I can’t stress this point enough: I hate Sam. Sam is a terrible, terrible human being.
For those interested in textual evidence:
“Lila, I hear you, but I don’t know if you can do it. I’m starting to think that letting you out there is like setting a wild animal free in a city–you just can’t help yourself.”
“I wish I were enough to make you…happy.”
“[Sam] would probably scold me for leaving the house at all.
Sam is despicable. He cares exactly not at all about Lila’s well-being or happiness. He moves their family across country without really caring about her opinion, he keeps her from going back to work even though that’s what she really wants to do, he forces her to isolate herself from her neighbors and pretty much everyone else she befriends because heaven forbid, someone might know someone who is somehow connected to a restaurant and everything will be ruined. He doesn’t even like her taking the kids out for lunch. This is a woman who has gone through a lot of life changes and is now caring for two children, one a nursing baby, completely on her own–a woman who is a prime candidate for postpartum depression–and he cuts her off from everyone who might be able to help her out. Honestly, I kept waiting for Lila to snap and stab him or something. Instead, she’s almost constantly frustrated at him but often forgets her feelings because she remembers how charming he was when they first met, or she sees him smiling at their children. Because, you know, that makes the emotional abuse just dandy.
Their conflict is finally “resolved” by Sam magically understanding Lila around the same time she comes around to the idea that his paranoia is justified. She actually blames herself for someone STEALING A PICTURE OF SAM FROM THEIR HOME to circulate around the local restaurants. She decides not to go back to work full-time, because he was right about that too, somehow, and instead she begins doing some maybe possibly part-time freelance work.
Here’s the thing: I don’t have a thing in the world against stay at home mothers. I actually have a lot of respect for them, and wouldn’t mind having the option myself some day. But I’m not okay with a woman being strongarmed into staying home, just because her husband says so, without really talking to her or trying to understand what she wants out of life. Some women really want to work out of the home after they have children, and that deserves equal respect, especially when there are financial problems in the household. Ahem.
The Restaurant Critic’s Wife was a total disappointment, doubly so because of how well the actual writing was. The two star rating is for Ms. LaBan’s skills in that arena alone; otherwise, it’s a solid .5-1 stars. Avoid if possible. It will only break your heart.
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