I’ve been reading up a storm recently, tossing one book off after another. But to catch up on my blogging, here is a double-duty post of two completely different books, one historical fiction and the other contemporary memoir.
This is a great example of a book I couldn’t put down, but didn’t think all that much of once I was finished. Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam, the teenage protagonist, Nella Oortman, arrives in the city full of optimism and nerves to begin her marriage to Johannes Brandt, a very successful, wealthy, and much older man. Her new household is unwelcoming, and while her new husband is kind to her, he is also disinterested in her sexually and romantically. Brandt shares his house with his sister, an outwardly spartan and unfriendly woman, and two servants who are on peculiarly familiar terms with their masters. Nella is lonely and despondent at what she soon realizes will be a loveless and virginal life. Her only consolation is her husband’s odd wedding gift of an expensive dollhouse that replicates her new home. Soon packages start arriving from a mysterious miniaturist, who makes alarmingly exact miniatures of the house’s inhabitants, pets, and significant acquaintances. The story unfolds to answer several mysteries: Why is her husband so kind but disinterested in her? What is the relationship between the siblings? What do the servants know that they aren’t sharing? Who is this miniaturist and why does he know so much about the household? Why is the sister so cold and troubled?
I found the set up a well-worn, and therefore, not particularly original path; the young bride baffled by her new surroundings and a husband who turns out to have misrepresented himself, so she has to figure out what is going on. What she discovers is shocking by seventeenth century standards, yet Nella, in just a mere four months after her wedding and at the tender age of 17, finds a way to accept all these extraordinary events and people. By doing so, she demonstrates wisdom and acceptance beyond her years or historical likelihood. Still, fiction doesn’t need to be believable, and the book was decently enough written that I whizzed through it. It didn’t provide me with any great themes to ponder, and it certainly didn’t stick in my head as, say, A God in Ruins has or Elena Ferrante’s novels are proving to. It’s a good historical novel and enjoyable as a commuter read, beach read, or similar.
It’s hard to write about a memoir without judgement; either you end up liking the person or not, but either way you are taking measure. So I’ll just say up front, I came off liking Padma Lakshmi a lot. She’s not just a pretty face, or a chef, or a TV personality, or the ex-wife of a famous writer. She came off as much more multidimensional and less fame-driven than I’d anticipated
Lakshmi writes quite candidly about a lot of painful subjects: her failed marriage to Rushdie (he comes off as the selfish literary lion you’d expect), her incredible struggle with undiagnosed endometriosis, the terrible accident that gave her the large scar on her arm, the death of her lover/companion from brain cancer, and the ugly custody battle with the father of her miraculously (considering the endometriosis) conceived daughter.
Despite the loss, she also discusses her complex, but kind of amazing road to success. She published a cookbook long before she became a model. She almost didn’t become a model because jobs for “exotic” types were few, especially in the US, and then there is that scar. Not until Helmut Newton, an apparent scar nut, photographed her did her career in modeling take off. Later, during one of the early seasons of Top Chef, before it was successful, she claims to have been barely making ends meet. She often discusses her insecurities with success — a who me? attitude — that seems rather genuine. In particular, she notes how her ethnicity often held her back in the US, and she struggled with the double edge sword that Americans assign to “exoticness.”
Still, sometimes you wonder if Lakshmi realizes how also very exceptional her life has been to become a top model, TV personality, author, and the lover/companion of three million/billionaire men. It’s not many who go straight into such exceptional career choices without a pit stop in, say, a crappy waitressing job.
Throughout the book she reminisces warmly about her childhood memories and experiences in India with her large extended family. From these early and significant relationships, she develops her palate and love of food which seems to permeate every memory of her formative years. She sprinkles recipes throughout the book that come from her experiences. A large part of the book is devoted to these recollections, and while I found them to be some of the most interesting parts of the book, she sometimes went off tangentially and repetitively with them in other sections.
Food now dominates Lakshmi’s world. I always wonder how people in the food critic/hosting business manage to stay slim. Apparently, she doesn’t — she claims to gain about 20 pounds with each Top Chef season and her wardrobe has to be altered and her body strategically photographed along the way. But while she feels the pressure to remain model thin, she also discusses the importance of embracing the “voluptuousness” that comes from both her job, her love of food, and the baby weight she carried for some time. Also, she reveals, women look better in a sari if they are a size 10 or 12. I think I may have been born in the wrong wardrobe culture.
Overall, while I enjoyed her memoir, I remain shy of the contemporary celebrity memoir and likely won’t seek one out again for a long time. There is something that makes me feel too much like a look-loo when reading — like a neighbor who shows up for an open house when you’re selling. I’m going to avoid feeling like a nosey Nellie value-judging life choices like decorating schemes.