Kate Parker is single, childless and fast approaching forty and has been feeling a bit desperate. However, as her long-term boyfriend Nick, with whom she shares a love of food and cooking (but possibly not much else), has recently suggested that she should move in with him, she is now finding this state of affairs rather less bothersome. Just before this move is to take place, but after she has moved her cookery books into his flat, they go to France on holiday and whilst there, Nick drops a bombshell. He suddenly announces that he’s started to have doubts about her moving in and needs time to discover whether he’s yet ready to make this commitment. Unfortunately, by the time she returns from holiday, her flatmate has already found a replacement tenant and Kate is forced to return to live with her mother – a woman who is not only overly critical of her, but also enjoys a much more interesting social life!
Following the death of her father, when she was reluctant to abandon her widowed mother, Kate took a job in a supermarket and, after nineteen years, is now joint head of copy in its in-store marketing department. Although she finds it rather boring, predictable and unstimulating, even when faced with the threat of redundancy, she lacks the courage to initiate a change. Although this job is a far cry from the travelling and food-writing career which she had envisaged for herself before her father’s death, she can’t believe that that is a path she could still seek. When she returns from the disastrous holiday in France, obsessed with what has gone wrong and whether there is any future in her relationship with Nick, she is persuaded by a close friend that volunteering would offer a distraction and, when the preferred choice of pet care centre has a waiting list, the only alternative appears to be Lauderdale House for Exceptional Ladies.
Discovering Kate’s love of food and cooking, the director of the home suggests she could offer weekly cookery demonstrations for the elderly residents and it is through these that she meets Cecily Finn, a woman evocatively described in the opening paragraph of the story as “….. ninety-seven and a half years old. Her hair is as stiff and bright as a firmly beaten egg white, and her dark eyes hold the look of a permanently unimpressed owl”. Although Cecily’s mind is as sharp as ever, she claims she is looking forward to death as offering a welcome release from “boredom and institutionalised fish pie”! She doesn’t suffer fools gladly so fellow inmates, and staff, regard her as difficult and rude and are ever-wary of her acerbic comments. However, based on their shared love of food and cooking, an apparently unlikely relationship begins to develop between the two women and Kate’s misery about feeling in a rut, both at work and in her relationships, begins to shift when Cecily lends her a recipe book. With complete menus for various occasions, this is a cookbook with a difference, offering suggestions such as “Supper for a friend who is slimming”, “Supper to make peace with your sister after a squabble”, “Dinner with friends to celebrate a rather significant birthday”, “Dinner for one after a heartbreak”, “Dinner for the man you hope to marry”, “Brunch for newlyweds”, to name just a few. Following each complete menu is a relevant thought-provoking homily, offering ideas about how to meet life’s challenges and to meet one’s own needs, making the book as much a self-help manual as a cookbook. As Kate starts to read it she realises that rather than feeling swept along by other people’s needs and demands, she needs to take control and find ways to change what she finds unsatisfactory in her life.
Although the earlier parts of the story focus on Kate, through the developing relationship the reader gets to find out more about Cecily’s interesting life, with all the challenges she has had to face and overcome. Kate learns a lot about cooking from Cecily but so very much more about loving and living life to the full. As the story develops, and as Cecily appears to feel much more engaged with life, it becomes clear that the friendship offers each of them some essential nourishment.
I loved following the developing relationship between these two seemingly very different characters and the various ways in which the author demonstrated the richness of experience which is possible in inter-generational relationships. Having experienced these (now from each end of the spectrum!) I can attest to how, whatever the age difference, true friendships are based on shared values, honesty and mutual respect and that, no one is ever too old to learn something from someone else.
I had feared that this might be a rather lightweight, “chick-lit” type novel but was impressed by the author’s credible development of her two main characters (as well as the more minor ones) and I very much enjoyed the ways in which she combined her explorations of some serious dilemmas with a gentle, witty humour. An added enjoyment came from finding some new recipes I’d like to experiment with! When I reached the end of the book and read the “A Note from the Author”, I appreciated the extra dimension this biographical note added to her story.
Just a final, cautionary note, don’t consider reading this story if you’re feeling hungry – even the cover is enough to stimulate the taste buds!
Linda Hepworth 4/4
The Woman Who Wanted More by Vicky Zimmerman
Zaffre 9781785765322 pbk May 2019