There are a lot of books about lost love and sacrifice. There are books about one generation passing on its secrets and lessons to another. There are books about making decisions that can change the course of one’s whole life. Marisol’s The Lady, the Chef, and the Courtesan touches on all these topics, but does so with such warmth and panache that you forgive its familiarity and just lose yourself in the book.
While traveling home to Venezuela for her grandmother’s funeral, Pilar finds herself at a crossroads. Her mother wants her to leave her new life in Chicago and move back to Venezuela. She’s also feeling pressure to reunite with her former fiancé, a charming but old-fashioned man she cares for but who doesn’t fit with her new life.
Then she inherits her grandmother’s diaries – volumes that reveal a treasure trove of family secrets and teach Pilar about the importance of love and of following your heart. The title comes from the Venezuelan idea that a woman should be lady in the living room, a chef in the kitchen and a courtesan in the bedroom. Each section deals with one of these ideas of how a woman should behave and gives it a unique spin, showing the effect it had on the grandmother’s life.
That life, of course, involves an unhappy marriage and a fleeting but exhilarating encounter with true love that changes everyone’s lives – though few of them are even aware of it. The grandmother’s writings, rife with Venezuelan traditions and sumptuous-looking recipes, are the bulk of the novel but have more than enough juice to keep the story going.
Pilar’s story is properly given much less time. Though there’s some pathos in her struggle choosing between a new life and the old one, her story is slightly less interesting, particularly since there doesn’t seem to be much doubt about what her eventual decision will be.
In fact, the whole book is somewhat predictable and lightweight. But Marisol writes with such flair and gives even the novel’s most minor plot twists such weight (in this book, making paella is endowed with almost as much suspense as a courtroom verdict would have in another book) that the book draws you in. The Lady, the Chef, and the Courtesan is a trifle, sure. But it’s a sweet, juicy one worthy of indulgence.