Tortellini Salad with Cherry Tomatoes & Olives

Welcome to another stop on the TLC Book Tour. This week I am pleased to review A Handbook for Beautiful People by Jennifer Spruit.  (I received a free copy courtesy of TLC and the publisher.)

About A Handbook for Beautiful People

• Paperback: 260 pages
• Publisher: Inanna Publications (November 24, 2017)

Winner of an IPPY award – bronze in popular fiction

When twenty-two year old Marla finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, she wishes for a family, but faces precariousness: an uncertain future with her talented, exacting boyfriend, Liam; constant danger from her roommate, Dani, a sometime prostitute and entrenched drug addict; and the unannounced but overwhelming needs of her younger brother, Gavin, whom she has brought home for the first time from deaf school. Forcing her hand is Marla’s fetal alcohol syndrome, which sets her apart but also carries her through. When Marla loses her job and breaks her arm in a car accident, Liam asks her to marry him. It’s what she’s been waiting for: a chance to leave Dani, but Dani doesn’t take no for an answer. Marla stays strong when her mother shows up drunk, creates her own terms when Dani publicly shames her, and then falls apart when Gavin attempts suicide. It rains, and then pours, and when the Bow River finally overflows, flooding Marla’s entire neighbourhood, she is ready to admit that she wants more for her child than she can possibly give right now. Marla’s courage to ask for help and keep her mind open transforms everyone around her, cementing her relationships and proving to those who had doubted her that having a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder does not make a person any less noble, wise or caring.

Praise

“Wonderful, heartfelt, heartbreaking–I can’t recommend this novel highly enough.” –Annabel Lyon

“Jennifer Spruit has such a distinct, poignant voice, and her brilliant debut novel A Handbook for Beautiful People highlights this perfectly. Through sharp characters and their complications, a driven narrative develops, enveloping us before we have a chance to judge. Jump into this novel. It will sweep you up.” –Joseph Boyden

Purchase Links

Inanna Publications | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

About Jennifer Spruit

Jennifer Spruit was born in Lloydminster, AB/SK, and now lives in Courtenay, BC. She attended the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of British Columbia. Jennifer enjoys teaching kids, playing music, and paddling a blue canoe. This is her first novel.

Find out more about Jennifer at her website.

What I thought:

First of all, let me get this off my chest:  I think the publisher’s blurb above makes A Handbook for Beautiful People sound like a melodramatic beach read.

Secondly, let me come clean.  When I first started this novel, I had to put it down after the first thirty pages.   Did I want to see this story through Marla’s flawed perception?  No.   I perceived the plot as a train wreck—absolutely nothing good was going to come from this story.   The light at the end of the tunnel had to be an oncoming train.

I did pick it back up.   I did start from the absolute beginning and I did read it cover-to-cover in one afternoon.  It honestly may be the best book I’ve read this year.

Beach read? No (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Complicated and wonderful and beautifully written novel?  Resoundingly YES!  Spruit strings her characters together as a motley crew of loneliness, a group, as I mentioned before, that has nothing to look forward to and nothing good in sight.

Marla, the adult with FES, finds herself at the center of an island of misfit toys. Someone who first aspires to little more than saving “her diner tips in a spaghetti sauce jar on the stove” (4) and who “finds herself accentuating her whimsy and packaging it in stories about her lovability”(18) to fit in.  She could selfishly have that family mentioned in the above blurb, but she wisely and selflessly makes the best decisions for herself and others around her.

Liam is her ironic lover—a would-be concert cellist plagued by arthritis.  He changes from one infatuated with Marla’s spontaneity to one unwilling to commit to anything permanent.  He puts on airs but comes from the same place as the others.  I initially wondered why Liam put up with Marla but then I had to question Marla’s willingness to deal with Liam’s absurd behavior (more absurd and erratic than her own).

Dani is Marla’s drug addled roommate who looks out for Marla.  (Or, is it the other way around?)  She obviously has her own demons to excise.

Gavin’s deafness is just a metaphor for his fragmented life.  The chapters from his point of view are written in a confusing way with skipped words….just like Gavin’s own life.   Gavin is addled and drifting and finds himself apart from society.

Since I focus on a food angle in all my reviews, I couldn’t help but notice the chapter titles.   They string together like some free verse recipe trying to make sense:  Apple Seed, Ravioli, Tortilla Chip, Christmas Orange, Lemon, Cookie, Pop Can, Burger, Iced Capp., Triple Scoop Ice Cream Cone, Eggplant, Coconut, Honeydew, Microwave Popcorn, Chicken, Pumpkin, Baby, Shrinking.

There is a long list of food that makes appearances—everything from Chinese and Thai food to ordinary diner food.  There’s a lot of junk food (or as Gavin would say “impure food”), too.  Two times, tortellini is mentioned.  The first is during a volatile scene between Liam and Gavin where Marla seeks comfort in her thoughts:

…nothing would be better than eating homemade tortellini on his couch and watching cheesy Christmas movies together. (68)

Her wish of a more docile existence is finally achieved.   It even includes this unlikely cast playing domesticated roles and dare I say it, even happy ones:  “Liam stays to make tea, bring Marla slippers, and cook tortellini” (262).

Tortellini Salad with Cherry Tomatoes & Olives

By Debra

This is an easy hearty salad, fully of summer bounty and goodness.

Ingredients

  • 9 oz. cheese tortellini
  • olive oil
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2/3 c. chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1 large clove garlic, minced
  • drizzle of balsamic vinegar
  • 1/3 c, fresh basil leaves
  • fresh ground pepper and sea salt

Instructions

  1. Cook tortellini according to directions. Drain. Place in a large bowl and toss with a bit of olive oil. Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Add tomatoes, olives and garlic.  Drizzle with balsamic.   Toss and season with salt and pepper. (Add another drizzle of olive oil if needed.)
  3. Chiffonade basil leaves.  Add to salad and toss.
  4. Serve.

Yield: 4

Because of the briny olives, I did not add any salt to my salad.  Just beware and salt cautiously.

 

Truly, is there any food that speaks “family” more than pasta?  Even if the the family is dysfunctional and flawed (as every family truly is to some degree)?

What I thought would be a resolution of pain and sorrow and heartache and death in A Handbook for Beautiful People turned out to be a lesson in resolve and love.

Serves me right for judging a book by it’s cover or rather the characters by their initial flaws.

Thanks to TLC Book Tour for making this book available to me.

I am linking up with Novel Food (Simona at bricriole), Souper Sunday (Deb at Kahakai Kitchen) and Foodies Reads (Heather at Based on a True Story).

 

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My Favorite Reads

Eat, Pray, Love
Running with Scissors
SantaLand Diaries
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Angela's Ashes
Naked
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
My Life in France
Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
The Liars' Club
Code Name Verity
The Paris Wife
The Shoemaker's Wife
The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel
Brother of the More Famous Jack
Burying the Honeysuckle Girls


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