Friday, January 21, 2011
Starting From Scratch by Susan Gilbert-Collins
The day Olivia Tshcetter defended her doctoral dissertation on "The Use of Flouting Implicatures by Advanced Non-native Speakers of English" should have been a happy day for her. Instead, it was the day Olivia found out about her mother's stroke that would shortly lead to her death. Instead of tying up the loose ends of her doctorate, Olivia is home cooking elaborate meals for her father, unable to tell him or any of her doubting older, overachieving siblings about her defense since she never got the chance to tell the person she most wanted to tell.
Olivia wants to finish her mother's last cooking newsletter, but she can't seem to make the pieces fit together. She can't seem to grieve or even start the process of letting go, so she rattles around her parents' house and cooks attempting to fill the gaping hole left by the loss of her mother. When her father and her aunts corner her to bully her into getting back to work on the dissertation they think she hasn't finished, Olivia flees and finds herself stumbling into a part time job at Meals on Wheels. It's there that Olivia uncovers the mystery of an old friend of her mother's and discovers a long buried secret about the sister she always thought was the most perfect of her siblings.
Starting From Scratch is a sweet but slow moving story about family, secrets, and healing. Susan Gilbert-Collins is one of those authors who skillfully develop their characters not with tons of background information but with realistically rendered dialogue. With their conversations combined with Olivia's feelings, Gilbert-Collins reveals a family, who having lost their matriarch and anchor, seem to be floating away from each other. Olivia is a sympathetic character who provides an interesting and totally believable look into what life is like for the youngest of several siblings, the one who little is expected of, the insecure one standing in the shadows of her three older siblings, the one who is always sheltered and the last to know, the one who nobody ever seems to think of as an adult regardless of how old she might be.
While I liked Starting from Scratch, I didn't love it. It plunges into the grief part too fast without giving us a very well fleshed out picture of Olivia and her siblings' relationships with their mother. You see the characters are sad and crying and struggling, but it's hard to understand the magnitude of their loss, and Gilbert-Collins never made me feel these things along with her characters and so gave me a feeling that I was skimming along the surface of a story that had the potential to touch me much more deeply. The unexpected mystery angle adds some texture to the book, and I enjoyed it and the revelations within the family that resulted. The story, however, takes a long time to build up to the mystery and the revelations so that only the patient will be rewarded.
Despite what I see to be its flaws, Starting from Scratch is an absorbing portrait of the impact of grief on a family, and of a family learning to live life without a loving mother. Caught up in it all is a story of a sensitive girl who never got to become a woman carving a place for herself in a family that has just begun to see her for who she is.
(Thanks to Alexandra at Planned TV Arts for my review copy!)
Other reviews of Starting from Scratch:
A Progressive on the Prairie
S. Krishna's Books