Feeding Christine
by Barbara Chepaitis
(Bantam, $23.95, G) ISBN 0-553-80165-1
A novel about women, food and love - what else do you need? Well, stir into this basic recipe beautiful writing, a touch of mysticism and some dark comedy, and you've got the ingredients for the best women's fiction I've read this year.

The women of Bread and Roses Catering come together each year before Christmas to spend a hectic day of cooking and baking in preparation for their annual Open House. This year, however, they are facing more than the usual holiday stress. The owner and heart of Bread and Roses, Teresa DiRosa, is reeling from her recent divorce and her son's decision to spend Christmas with his father. At the same time, she's flustered by the less than subtle romantic messages she's getting from Rowan Bancroft, who owns a nearby garden shop. Delia Olson, who handles marketing and financial matters for the business, is strangely resistant to her husband's plan to let his ailing father move in with them. Amberlin Sheffer, the baker, is also at a crossroads, unsure if she's willing to go public about her new love affair with another woman.

But the most troubled woman this year is Teresa's niece, Christine. Raised by an alcoholic, unstable mother who ultimately committed suicide, Christine seems to have overcome her difficult childhood. She's a talented artist and is engaged to a successful psychiatrist. But on the seventh anniversary of her mother's death, Christine starts to crack. When she comes to Teresa's house, her aunt realizes that Christine plans to follow in her mother's tragic footsteps. So Teresa takes drastic measures to keep Christine alive. When the other women find out, they each try in their own way to ease Christine's pain. In the process, they come to new realizations about their own lives. Meanwhile, the preparations for the open house must go on...

Feeding Christine is a short book, but its 244 pages seem longer because they are flavored with lyrical writing and powerful imagery. Like good food, the book begs to be savored slowly. Within the brief pages the reader will find both wry humor and almost unbearable sadness. In the first 35 pages alone, there is one of the most chilling portrayals of a moment of madness that I have ever encountered, along with an entertaining but bittersweet childhood reminiscence.

In addition to strong writing, the book is well-seasoned with memorable characters. Teresa is a throwback to her Italian ancestors. She's old-fashioned and stoic, choosing to use food, instead of words, to express her emotions. She is in complete contrast to Amberlin, who was raised by her intellectual parents to use words in a logical and rational manner. Delia falls somewhere in between. She's down to earth and sociable, but tends to deny the existence of any problems until they become impossible to ignore.

Hovering wraithlike over the four women is Nan, Teresa's sister and Christine's mother. "Nan was born with wings," the author explains.

Now wings are wonderful because they'll take you as high as you dare go, to explore worlds few people ever see. And when you return, the people around you can breathe a little better, because as your wings move the air, they bring the memory of what you've experienced, a scent of the visions you've seen.

But wings aren't suited to modern times. They get caught in doors. Seat belts don't accommodate them. They stick out of voting booths, and disturb the people in back of you in line at the bank. And although they might look feathery and soft in all the pictures, they're actually sharp as knives.

There are ways of learning how to deal with all these problems, but those who could have taught this to Nan didn't speak the same language...So Nan drank to stifle the pain she endured from the blades of her shoulder to the center of her heart, which is where the wings are attached.

Both Teresa and Christine make a new peace with the legacy of this woman they loved, feared and sometimes hated. All four women are forever changed by the events of just three short days. This is much more than the average "bunch of chicks sitting around talking" women's fiction. It has a unique voice, sprinkles of Alice Hoffman-like mysticism, and a few unpredictable plot turns as well. It sounds cliched to say, "you'll laugh, you'll cry," but I promise that you will. And, like myself, you will want to share a generous helping of Feeding Christine with other women.

--Susan Scribner

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