|According to her author profile, Jennie Shortridge has worked as a plumber, sung in a rock band, cooked in a café, developed recipes for a yogurt company and written for women’s magazines. Somehow that varied life experience has transformed her into a natural writer. Shortridge’s debut, Riding with the Queen, was one of the nicest surprises of 2003, and her second release, Eating Heaven, is just as impressive. If you like the thoughtful, occasionally grim but ultimately hopeful fiction of Lisa Tucker and Barbara Samuels, you need to discover this talented author.
Eleanor Samuels has a love-hate relationship with food. On the one hand, she loves to create gourmet dinners and sinful desserts, but on the other hand she is so ashamed of her occasional eating binges that she invents a fictional husband to share her triple mocha fudge chunk ice cream so the server at Frozen Moo won’t think less of her. As a freelance food writer, she is an expert at churning out recipes for “Asian Food With Half the Fat” and “Sexy Desserts That Help You Stay in Shape,” but she really wants to tell people that the Atkins diet is a tool of the Devil and they should eat whatever makes them happy.
Ellie and her widowed, remarried mother Bebe treat each other like polite acquaintances, and her two sisters live far away from their hometown of Portland, Oregon. Her closest bond is with her “Uncle” Benny, who has been part of the family since Ellie was a young girl. When Benny’s lingering flu bug turns out to be a serious, life-threatening illness, Ellie becomes his primary caregiver, putting her career and a tentative but promising romantic relationship on hold. Watching Benny quickly deteriorate exhausts Ellie and she is surprised to find that food is no longer comforting, especially as she uncovers the secrets about Benny’s complicated history with her mother. But ultimately, through old, new and renewed relationships, Ellie learns to value herself and develop a less emotional, more honest approach to food: eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and enjoy what you eat.
Shortridge has such a graceful, genuine voice that it’s hard to believe she hasn’t been writing novels for years. She creates believable characters and complex interpersonal dynamics but never takes the easy way out. Even the self-centered, aloof Bebe is not totally unsympathetic, and the connection between Bebe and Benny turns out to be both more and less than the torrid affair that everyone always assumed took place.
The novel honestly describes the challenge of living with an eating disorder, capturing perfectly the dark appeal of the food binge and the crushing shame that follows. We never know exactly how much Ellie weighs, but that’s not really the point; it’s more important how she views herself. In several Chick Lit books that I’ve read with plus-sized heroines, the message of acceptance is undermined when the heroine miraculously becomes slender by the novel’s close. Fortunately that doesn’t happen here – in fact, it’s a moment to be celebrated when Ellie, who had lost a significant amount of weight during Benny’s crisis, gains some of it back.
In the author interview, Shortridge indicates that her stepmother died of cancer, and surviving that loss likely informed the denial, anger and acceptance that Ellie endures during Benny’s illness. I hope that the hospice workers and nurses whom Shortridge encountered were as compassionate as the ones that helped Ellie and Benny. Of course any book that focuses on the death of a major character is going to be sad, but Eating Heaven has moments of wry humor and cautious optimism that keep it from being a depressing experience.
Eating Heaven is less gritty than Riding With the Queen; it’s easier to identify with a heroine who can eat an entire spice cake at one sitting than one who abuses drugs, alcohol and sex, and many of the secondary characters from Heaven are virtuous nurses and hospice workers instead of Queen’s musicians and people with mental illnesses. But the heroines of both books make peace with a difficult past, rise above their pain, find new ways to nurture themselves and develop new relationships to replace dysfunctional ones. Shortridge has now tackled music and food; I can’t wait to find out what other life experience she will draw on for her next novel.