Desert Isle Keeper
Salty, Bitter, Sweet
Mayra Cuevas’ Salty, Bitter, Sweet is a sharply etched and unforgettable tale of an expat American teenager trying to find her way in France. It’s a beautifully done life study that knows what it’s talking about when it speaks of food, family and love alike, with a heroine who’s unforgettable.
Isabella Field’s life revolves around food. Fantasizing about becoming a ranked Michelin Star chef some day, she also dreams of owning a restaurant of note. Spending her days perusing her beloved dog-eared copy of Larousse Gastronomique, she has moved to France for a three week cooking course under Chef Pascal Grattard, the head chef at Le Table de Lyon. If she manages to excel here, she will become the lucky student selected for a year-long apprenticeship at the restaurant. Even being on the course will open prestigious doors for Isabella, who is determined to get the position at all costs. Cooking also provides a connection back to family – to Isabella’s beloved, late Cuban immigrant grandmother, to her roots.
Half second generation Cuban-American, half French, Isabella navigates the complicated world of her family’s issues with cautious optimism, never feeling entirely comfortable either in the American or French worlds, still troubled by her parent’s ugly divorce even though it’s been six months since it was finalized. Instead, she mixes the cuisines and cultures of her worlds together to make the unique picture that reflects the woman she is becoming. And so, Isabella has moved to France to live on their cherry farm with her father and stepmother as her apprenticeship plays out.
This is not easy to do with grace, as said divorce was caused by her father cheating on her mom with that younger Frenchwoman, who is also now pregnant by him – an event that Isabella had knowledge of before her mother did, and something she has not yet confronted her father about. With Margot – who earns Isabella’s ire for not eating her gourmet meals and surviving off of bread and butter even though she’s eight months along – comes Diego, her snarky, slovenly, motorcycle-riding, half-Catalan, half-French stepson from a previous union. Diego also comes with a bulldog, Beluga, who seems slightly more well-mannered than he is.
To say that Isabella and Diego have a classic slap-slap-kiss-kiss relationship is an understatement. Isabella already has a low (and in light of her father’s infidelity, understandable) opinion of boys. Digeo wolfs down her food without taking the time to appreciate it; he lives a life of the kind of careless fun-seeking recklessness that Isabella has always avoided. He has no apologies, she loves order.
As the course progresses and proves to be much more difficult than Isabella anticipated, Isabella and Diego become closer. Isabella will have to learn how to balance life as a chef with life as a teenager. As she comes into her own through the friendships she makes in the program, she’ll confront her grief, encounter grown-up decisions, her disarrayed relationships with Margot and her father, and figure out who she is.
Salty, Bitter, Sweet is one of those fun, lyrical books that gives us a heroine who’s strong and original and great to track. That doesn’t mean that Isabella isn’t impossible or not very teenager-like as she struggles to be heard and understood within her universe. She experiments with alcohol, she experiences jealousy, she learns that not everyone has to love her food to love her.
Food is indeed a love language for Isabella. A strong plot point involves her trying to make a meal her stepmother will appreciate while at the same time trying to bring herself to make her grandmother’s special apple pie for her father – an act she hasn’t been able to commit since the infidelity became public. Food is how she makes friends. It’s how she falls in love.
And it’s in the scenes focused on cooking, in the meals prepared and the food the audience is treated to that sing up from the page. It’s easy to fall in love with cooking when Isabella tells the tale.
Speaking of love, my biggest problem with Diego and Isabella’s love story is that Diego never feels like a fully-fledged character – more like Isabella’s chosen opposite, who goes from enemy to supportive ally. But the romance is almost beside the point. Though they experience earth-shaking kisses and she angsts that he might be involved with an ex whom she’s competing with, I didn’t particularly feel the weight of their connection.
What I definitely felt was Isabella’s longing both for her grandmother and her old relationship with her father, all of which is rendered and handled sensitively. It’s the family relationships, the friendships and Isabella’s growth as a chef which carry the book, and make Salty, Bitter, Sweet a highly recommended read, a wonderfully rendered and beautifully realized story that will make the reader feel and relate.