Today, we're reviewing Stewart Lewis's The Secret Ingredient. Be warned: our review is long, since we seriously loved this book.
YA Contemporary Thursday is where we review up-and-coming YA contemporary books, or books we're just discovering!
Hardcover, 272 pages
Expected publication: June 11th 2013 by Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Amazon/ IndieBound/ Book Depository
Here's the synopsis from Goodreads:
Sixteen-year-old Olivia loves living in Silverlake, Los Angeles, with her dads, Bell and Enrique, and her brother, Jeremy. But when Olivia discovers that Bell's restaurant, FOOD, is in trouble, she applies for a job at a casting agency. The day of her interview, Olivia meets a psychic in an elevator who tells her that this summer will be pivotal. Soon after, Olivia stumbles upon a vintage cookbook with handwritten notes in the margins and starts to date a gorgeous boy named Theo. As Olivia reads the notes in the cookbook and cooks the recipes, she forms a kinship with the previous owner and becomes increasingly aware of the emptiness she feels without a mother. When Olivia discovers her birthmother's name and address, there's nothing to stop Olivia from meeting her. But sometimes the things we search for are the things we've always known.
So. The Secret Ingredient was one of those rare cases in which a relatively short book invoked all the feelings in us.And as a result, we had to write a ridiculously long review to compensate.
Two-second recap The Secret Ingredient is a short, sweet snapshot into the lives of a quirky, unconventional family in the heart of Los Angeles. Infused with delicious food and loving relationships, Stewart Lewis’s novel defies stereotypes and expected conventions.
Stewart Lewis’s The Secret Ingredient is by no means a long book – the ARC comes in at roughly 240 pages – but it’s a meaningful one. Lewis masterfully tackles all sorts of conventions and stereotypes normally found in YA – from relationships to family crises – and completely turns them on their head.
The end result is a very quiet novel which leaves a strong impact long after you’ve finished reading.
Things that worked:
* Lewis’s ability to discuss serious real-world problems, without over dramatization.
Olivia’s family has to deal with a series of fairly serious personal problems throughout the course of the novel – from a potential foreclosure; to having her brother land in jail; to losing the family restaurant. Lewis generally has Olivia deal with these problems in a rational manner, without dramatizing them.
Olivia’s quiet, level-headed way of handling difficult situations, was a pleasant change of pace from the typical YA protagonists who tend to go to extremes when dealing with stress. It’s much more realistic, and definitely a better example for young readers to emulate.
* Bell and Enrique.
First and foremost, we love the fact that a gay couple plays such a strong role in this book. Anytime a YA book features diversity in relationships – We're down.
Second, we felt that Lewis did an excellent job of showcasing the different sides of the two men, and how they’ve contributed to Olivia as a whole.
The details about Enrique’s background as a dancer; his ability to nurture Olivia after the “Stingray Trauma”, and even how he liked to sneak special items into Olivia’s second-hand wardrobe when she was younger, did a lot to explain Olivia’s ability to nurture people through her food.
Similarly, Bell’s practicality and go-get them attitude, also explains why Olivia is just so level headed about doing certain things – e.g. accompanying Enrique to an important dinner and getting a job to help support her family.
* The relationship between Lola and Olivia. Lewis does an excellent job in creating a friendship between the two girls that is full of rich moments, and very true to real life.
We really enjoyed the fact that regardless of what they were going through, Lola and Olivia were always mutually supportive and encouraging of one another.
Even when both girls receive life-changing news, there were none of the secretive/dramatic moments that one might likely to find in other YA books. Instead, both girls just made adjustments accordingly, and continued to do what they could to help the other one through their individual rough patches.
Ultimately, Lewis has created the type of friendship that is so realistic; we can easily visualize Olivia and Lola just quietly living their day-to-day lives, long after the novel has taken place.
* Obviously, the food. Cooking and food are omnipresent throughout the book, and Lewis uses both to build on characters, propel plotlines forward and also help us better understand motivations and circumstance.
Though Lewis’s use of food is constant, it’s also very subtle and really enriches Olivia’s world.
Things to consider:
We've seen some reviews state that they felt like Olivia tended to just accept unfolding situations, without taking the time to emotionally process them. As a result, the reviewers couldn’t connect with Olivia at a deeper level.
E.g. Olivia misinterprets a situation involving her long-time crush Theo. But instead of trying to get to the bottom of what she saw, she more or less just moves on.
After rereading some of the book’s earlier passages, we would have to agree with those reviews – but only to an extent. In the earlier chapters of the book, Olivia does appear to have the habit of just accepting what life and circumstances throw at her, without necessarily engaging with them at a deeper level.
However, we don’t think Olivia’s refusal to emotionally engage is necessarily indicative of poor characterization on Lewis’s part.
If anything, we would argue that Olivia’s lack of ability to process situations, only serves to reiterate how empty she feels at the beginning of the novel. Her dads are on the verge of losing their business and home; they’re not getting along; and Olivia’s not sure that her cooking – as talented as she may be – will lead her to where she wants in life.
Throw in the fact that she’s always felt like there’s a part of missing since she knows nothing about her mother, it’s not surprising that while she goes through life doing the right thing – e.g. getting a job to help her dads – she doesn’t necessarily think about the deeper implications. She doesn’t want to.
It’s only after she starts finding out answers; starts developing a stronger sense of self, that you see that she does start taking hold of her own life and destiny.
Coming in at a brief 240-something pages, The Secret Ingredient is a short, sweet look into how a girl comes of age, in a summer full of change. Readers will relish reading about Olivia’s emotional and culinary journey, as she strives toward her future.
Highly recommend for readers of all ages, especially fans of Sarah Dessen, John Green and Gayle Forman.