Review: A la Carte by Tanita S. Davis

A la Carte by Tanita S. Davis. Ember, 2008. Currently available.

Genre: YA Realistic Fiction

Face Value: When I first saw this book on Goodreads, I saw this cover.

Not bad, right? Too much pink and purple for my taste, and I could do without the steaming heart, but I wouldn’t be too worried about reading this in public. But when I went searching for this book in paperback at my local bookstore, this is what I found:

I mean, really? I can’t read that in public. That cover is way too sensuous and I don’t think it accurately represents Elaine’s relationship with food at all. Also, the cover model is too thin. The book says Elaine is a size 14 – so get a size 14 girl to model for the cover photo, ok publishers? It’s not that difficult.

Does it break the slate? Yeah, it really does, but rather than smashing the slate right away, it becomes a gradual Slatebreaking journey. Elaine starts out as a bitter loner who is wrapped up in a boy. It takes a rough road of poor decisions and alienation for her to realize that she has to define herself as an individual, rather than relying on her former best friend to guide her life. At times, it’s hard to read because you just want to shake some common sense into Elaine, but she eventually gets to where she needs to be.

Who would we give it to? Any culinary-inclined readers would enjoy this book because of its rich descriptions of food and bonus recipes.Review:  I am going to do you a favor and give you some advice: do not read this book on an empty stomach. Tanita Davis clearly did her research about the culinary details for this novel because every description of food in this novel is mouthwatering.

I do want to commend Davis for writing a teen girl character that has a good relationship with food. Living in a U.S. American culture that pressures women to have very complicated relationships with food and eating is not fun at all, so it felt good to read about a young woman who has worked through some food issues and found a way to enjoy food without being unhealthy or obsessive.

Elaine is a genius in the kitchen, able to improvise brilliant flavor combinations with whatever ingredients she has available. She idolizes Julia Child – who she calls Saint Julia – and has planned a summer pilgrimage to the Smithsonian to see Ms. Child’s iconic television kitchen. Unfortunately, Elaine’s skill in the kitchen does not translate to her social life. At school she feels isolated and awkward, especially since her best friend Simeon has been blowing her off lately.

Simeon and Elaine have been friends since childhood, but as they grew, Sim found himself easily blending in with the popular crows while Elaine was left behind. It has been months since Sim has shown any interest in hanging out with Elaine, which is especially painful because she developed a bit of a crush on him. That’s why she’ so surprised when Sim suddenly starts to show interest in her again – but he also suddenly needs a lot of favors.

Elaine is eager to help Sim, but the consequences for assisting her friend start to interfere in the rest of her life. Her mom stops trusting her, she starts to struggle in school, and things fall apart all around her. When Sim disappears and leaves Elaine to deal with the mess he left behind, she realizes that he has used her all along.

It’s really tough to read Elaine’s journey. She makes some really terrible choices. And when she realizes that she did something stupid, she has a terrible attitude about it and refuses to admit how wrong she was. It was especially difficult for me to read all of the fights between Elaine and her mom, because I could understand the perspective of both characters and I just wanted them to find a resolution. I had trouble sympathizing with Elaine because it was clear to me that she made poor choices – but I think that if I had read this book when I was a teenager, I might see her character differently.

It takes along time for Elaine to earn back her mom’s trust and to find the confidence to be a fulfilled individual, but the payoff is worth it – albeit a little fast. Elaine’s journey took such a long time that the turnaround in her luck was almost too quick to be believed, and I wish Davis had given us some more time to savor that plot point. Ultimately, though, I was thrilled to see Elaine break free of the control of her friend and establish herself as a strong woman with a unique talent.

Reviewed from a copy purchased at Changing Hands.

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