REVIEW: TOMORROW THERE WILL BE APRICOTS BY JESSICA SOFFER

TOMORROW THERE WILL BE APRICOTS

Author: Jessica Soffer
Hutchinson RRP $32.95
Review: Monique Mulligan 

A complex, multi-layered novel about love, loss and acceptance (and food), Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots reminds me of a rich and fragrant meal that’s been slow-cooked to draw out all the flavours and is savoured with a good wine. Jessica Soffer’s debut novel is surprisingly lovely … I choose the word surprisingly because it started slowly, but it became increasingly poignant as the characters’ stories took hold of my heart.

Set in New York, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots features the narratives of two women, generations apart. Victoria is a Jewish Iraqi widow whose husband has just died; now in her eighties, dealing with loss and emptiness, she wonders what there is left in life. With no one to care for, her thoughts turn increasingly to the daughter she gave up at birth. Is she still in New York? What is she doing? What is her life like? Victoria decides to give Iraqi cooking lessons in the hope she will find comfort in distraction, but what she finds is another lost soul. Food does have a way of bringing people together and this time is no exception.

Lorca is a troubled teenager, who just wants her mother to notice her – the real her. Her mother is a famous chef and doesn’t seem to have the time to deal with the pain Lorca feels over her parents’ breakdown and her mother’s subsequent distance. For years, Lorca has found ways to deal with her pain through various forms of self-mutilation: pinching, burning, cutting, and so on. There’s an especially poignant phrase from Lorca that notes how her intense craving for self-harm could have been avoided: “Back  then I couldn’t say what it was about. I couldn’t wrap my head around the need, the craving. Now I imagine that if my mother had just taken out the ice pack, tucked it into a towel, and held me on her lap, rocking me, whispering in my hair, cooling my fingers, things would have been different.” How intense is that? As the novel opens, Lorca has been suspended from school for cutting and her mother, tight-lipped and angry, wants to send her to boarding school.

Before her mother sends her away, she wants to replicate her mother’s ideal meal – Masgouf, an Iraqi fish dish. Nancy tasted it years ago in an Iraqi restaurant and has never forgotten it; perhaps if Lorca can track down the restaurant, she can find out how to cook it and maybe then she will have her mother’s attention. It will be the best dinner ever! Her search leads her to Victoria and the two strike up an unlikely, but deep, friendship based on a mutual love of food and need for someone to connect with. As they spend time together cooking and talking, the two women begin to suspect there is more that connects them than their love of food. What they learn is that family can be a feeling as much as it about blood.

As someone who loves cooking and food, I love how both are used as the medium to bring the women together and create the sense of family that both crave so dearly. Indeed, even Lorca’s mother, inaccessible as she seems at times, admits that what she most liked most about the fabled Masgouf was the sense of family experienced in the restaurant where she ate it. For me, the best ingredient in any dish must be love and one of my favourite things is to feed the people I love, so I related to this novel quite strongly. It made me wish my grandmother was still alive so I could cook with her and talk at the same time. I loved the relationship, tentative at first, between young and old – it was a lovely reminder that each generation can teach the other. In this case, both were able to meet a need and aid in healing broken hearts.

Soffer has created a delectable tale, with writing that is warm and comforting, while still elegant and clever. It’s a novel infused with emotion, mixing in an acute understanding of women at different ages and stages without judgment, but plenty of heart. It’s well seasoned but not overcooked – it’s not gushingly sweet; rather it has that perfect balance of hope, realism and wisdom. It’s a wonderful first novel and I look forward to more from this talented writer.

Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of Random House.

Bookish treat: Victoria teaches Lorca how to make shakrlama, a cookie made with “pistachio, rosewater, and citrus, and each one stuffed with an almond”. Sigh. I’d love one or three.