Cooking Up Trouble
How much you may enjoy Cooking Up Trouble depends in part on your expectations of a “Fairy Tale Romance”- a romance that reworks and modernizes the events of a classic tale. I love reworked fairy tales, but mainly when they bring something new to my understanding of the classic story. My favorite musical, for istance, is Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods, which layers themes of war, puberty, and adultery on top of familiar stories. Cooking Up Trouble is essentially a one-to-one transference of the story of Rumpelstiltskin into the language and historical milieu of an American tall tale. The story is told in a strong, folksy voice, but it suffers from the characters’ plot-contrived tunnel vision that is required to keep the fairy tale on track.
It’s 1895 in New Mexico Territory, and Heather Mahaffey has a problem. She’s the beautiful daughter of a poor-but-dishonest Irishman whose greatest foible is his tendency to tell extravagant, charming lies about his offspring, and he’s just told the town’s newest wealthy landowner that Heather is the best cook in the territory. Ignoring the loud chorus of voices (including Heather’s) who swear she could burn water, Philippe St. Pierre offers Heather a position as his cook. Heather sensibly refuses, but then her family is struck by a rash of bad luck, so despite her well-justified misgivings she goes up to accept Philippe’s offer.
Fate takes a hand in the form of Mr. D.A. Bologh, a good-looking stranger who appears from out of nowhere to make Heather an offer too good, if vague, to refuse. He’ll do all the cooking for a month and in exchange, Heather will … well, they’ll work those little details out later. Heather agrees, and in no time D.A. is turning out gourmet French meals. While she watches, he peels potatoes in mid-air, materializes exotic wines and mushrooms, and pots leap across the kitchen into his hand. Heather finds this mildly suspicious.
This happens over and over, and quickly becomes the most maddening aspect of the book. So many things happen for which the only plausible explanation is magic, and yet the possibility of magic never crosses a single character’s mind. Sherlock Holmes would be easier to persuade than these folks. It makes them seem dim and unimaginative when they aren’t supposed to be. Heather’s free-association skills aren’t up to par, either. She never connects D.A.’s mysterious doings in the kitchen to the other, similarly mysterious goings-on around the ranch. With so many repetitions, it felt like the characters were slow to catch on only to drag the story out a little longer.
Leaving aside the difficulties caused by the fairy-tale background, the story would be more entertaining if the romance was better. Heather is okay – she’s smart, humble, and down-to-earth – but Philippe is infuriating. He’s one of these guys who won’t let himself love a woman because they’re all just like the one what Done Him Wrong – but in this case, the wrongdoer is his mother, and his torment didn’t ring true. Philippe has escaped his lowly origins in a Louisiana whorehouse, and has learned to project a cultured air and hide his past. But it doesn’t hold up when we meet his mother and learn of the loving sacrifices that she made for him. (We witness some of these sacrifices in a sex scene that I found jarring and distasteful.) I couldn’t reconcile the contradiction, and was left feeling that either Mom was deluded or Sonny was a brat.
Although I didn’t find the fairy-tale aspect as entertaining as I had hoped, I did enjoy the tone of the story. The cadences and wry asides of a traditional tall tale have been nicely captured, and while I didn’t enjoy this particular story I did like the strong narrative voice and would be willing to give the author another try. If you’re interested in fairy tales that are simply transposed to another setting, Cooking Up Trouble may be worth a look; if you’re hoping for more than transposition, I’d give it a miss.