Welcome to The Love Season--a riveting story that takes place in one day and spans decades; a story that embraces the charming, pristine island of Nantucket, as well as Manhattan, Paris and Morocco. Elin Hilderbrand's most ambitious novel to date chronicles the famous couplings of real lives: love and friendship, food and wine, deception and betrayal--and forgiveness and healing.
It's a hot August Saturday on Nantucket Island. Over the course of the next 24 hours, two lives will be transformed forever.
Marguerite Beale, former chef of culinary hot spot Les Parapluies, has been out of the public eye for over a decade. This all changes with a phone call from Marguerite's goddaughter, Renata Knox.
Marguerite has not seen Renata since the death of Renata's mother, Candace Harris Knox, fourteen years earlier. And now that Renata is on Nantucket visiting the family of her new fiancé, she takes the opportunity, against her father's wishes, to contact Marguerite in hopes of learning the story of her mother's life--and death.
But the events of the day spiral hopelessly out of control for both women, and nothing ends up as planned.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.66(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.85(d)|
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August 19, 2006 • 6:30 a.m.
Marguerite didn't know where to start.
Each and every summer evening for nearly twenty years, she had cooked for a restaurant full of people, yet here she was in her own kitchen on a crystalline morning with a seemingly simple missiondinner for two that evening at seven thirtyand she didn't know where to start. Her mind spun like the pedals of a bicycle without any brakes. Candace coming here, after all these years. Immediately Marguerite corrected herself. Not Candace. Candace was dead. Renata was coming tonight. The baby.
Marguerite's hands quivered as she brought her coffee mug to her lips. The grandfather clock chimed just as it had every fifteen minutes of its distinguished lifebut this time, the sound startled Marguerite. She pictured a monkey inside, with two small cymbals and a voice screeching, Marguerite! Earth to Marguerite!
Marguerite chuckled. I am an old bat, she thought. I'll start by writing a list.
The phone call had come at eleven o'clock the night before. Marguerite was in bed, reading Hemingway. Whereas once Marguerite had been obsessed with foodwith heirloom tomatoes and lamb shanks and farmhouse cheeses, and fish still flopping on the counter, and eggs and chocolate and black truffles and foie gras and rare white nectarinesnow the only thing that gave her genuine pleasure was reading. The people of Nantucket wonderedoh yes, she knew they wonderedwhat Marguerite did all day, hermited in her house on Quince Street, secreted away from the eyes of the curious. Although there was always somethingthe laundry, the garden, the articles for the newspaper in Calgary (deadline every other Friday)the answer was: reading. Marguerite had three books going at any one time. That was the chef in her, the proverbial more-than-one-pot-on-the-stove. She read contemporary fiction in the mornings, though she was very picky. She liked Philip Roth, Penelope Lively, as a rule no one under the age of fifty, for what could they possibly have to say about the world that Marguerite hadn't already learned? In the afternoons, she enriched herself with biographies or books of European history, if they weren't too dense. Her evenings were reserved for the classics, and when the phone rang the night before Marguerite had been reading Hemingway. Hemingway was the perfect choice for late at night because his sentences were clear and easy to understand, though Marguerite stopped every few pages and asked herself, Is that all he means? Might he mean something else? This insecurity was a result of attending the Culinary Institute instead of a proper universityand all those years with Porter didn't help. An education makes you good company for yourself, Porter had liked to tell his students, and Marguerite, when he was trying to convince her to read something other than Larousse Gastronomique. Wouldn't he be proud of her now.
The phone, much like the muted toll of the clock a few seconds ago, had scared Marguerite out of her wits. She gasped, and her book slid off her lap to the floor, where it lay with its pages folded unnaturally under, like a person with a broken limb. The phone, a rotary, continued its cranky, mechanical whine while Marguerite groped her nightstand for her watch. Eleven o'clock. Marguerite could name on one hand the phone calls she'd received in the past twelve months: There was a call or two from the editorial assistant at the Calgary paper; there was a call from the Culinary Institute each spring asking for a donation; there was always a call from Porter on November 3, her birthday. None of these people would ever think to call her at eleven o'clock at nightnot even Porter, drunk (not even if he'd split from the nubile young graduate assistant who had become his late-in-life wife), would dare call Marguerite at this hour. So it was a wrong number. Marguerite decided to let it ring. She had no answering machine to put the phone out of its misery; it just rang and rang, as pleading and insistent as a crying baby. Marguerite picked it up, clearing her throat first. She occasionally went a week without speaking.
"Aunt Daisy?" The voice had been light and cheerful; there was background noisepeople talking, jazz music, the familiar clink and clatter of glasses and plateswas it restaurant noise? It threw Marguerite off. And then there was the nickname: Daisy. Only three people had ever used it.
"It's Renata." There was an expectant pause. "Renata Knox."
Marguerite's eyes landed across the room, on her desk. Taped to her computer was Renata Knox's e-mail address; Marguerite beheld it every day as she binged guiltily on the Internet for an hour, but she had never sent a single message. Because what could she possibly say? A casual hello would be pointless and anything more, dangerous. Marguerite's eyes skittered from her desk to her dresser. On top of her dresser were two precious framed photographs. She dusted them carefully each week, though she rarely lingered over them anymore. Years ago she had scrutinized them so intensely that they imprinted themselves on her brain. She knew them by heart, the way she knew the streets in the sixth arrondissement, the way she knew the temperament of a soufflé. One picture was of Marguerite and Candace taken at Les Parapluies on the occasion of Renata's christening. In it, Marguerite was holding Renata, her goddaughter. How well she remembered that moment. It had taken a magnum of Veuve Clicquot and several glasses of thirty-year port to get Dan to relinquish his grip on his newborn daughter, and when he did, it was only to Candace so that the baby could nurse. Marguerite sat with Candace on the west banquette as the party thundered around them. Marguerite knew little of babies, or lactation; she fed people every day, but nothing was as captivating as watching Candace feed her daughter. When Candace finished, she eased the baby up over her shoulder until the baby burped. Then Candace passed her over to Marguerite casually, like she was a loaf of bread.
Go see your godmother, Candace said to the baby.
Godmother, Marguerite had thought. The last time she had been inside a church before that very morning was for Candace and Dan's wedding, and before that the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris the year she met Porter, and so her notion of godmother came mostly from fairy tales. Marguerite had gazed down at the baby's tiny pink mouth, which still made the motion of sucking even though the breast was gone, and thought, I will feed you your first escargot. I will pour your first glass of champagne.
"Aunt Daisy?" Renata said.
"Yes, dear," Marguerite said. The poor girl probably thought Marguerite was as crazy as the islanders said she wasself-mutilation, months in a psychiatric hospital, gave up her restaurantor worse, she thought Marguerite didn't know who she was. How surprised the child would be to find out that Marguerite thought of her, and of Candace, every day. The memories ran through her veins. But enough of that! Marguerite thought. I have the girl on the phone! "I'm sorry, darling. You caught me by surprise."
"Were you sleeping?" Renata asked. "It's awfully late."
"No," Marguerite said. "Not sleeping. In bed, reading. Where are you, darling? Are you at school?"
"I don't start back for three more weeks," Renata said.
"Oh, right," Marguerite said. "Silly of me." Already she felt like the conversation was a dog she'd agreed to take for a walk, one that yanked on its chain, urging Marguerite to catch up. It was August now; when Renata went back to college she'd be a . . . sophomore? Marguerite had sent Renata five thousand dollars for her high school graduation the spring before lastan outrageous sum, though who else did Marguerite have to give her money to? Renata had graduated first in her class, and although she'd been accepted at Yale and Stanford, she'd decided on Columbia, where Porter was still chairman of the art history department. Renata had sent Marguerite a sweet little thank-you note for the money in loopy script with a lot of exclamation pointsand Dan had dashed off a note as well on his office stationery. Once again, Margo, you've done too much. Hope you are well. Marguerite noticed he had not actually said thank you, but that would have been hoping for too much. After all these years, Dan still hadn't forgiven her. He thought she sent the money out of guilt when really she had sent it out of love.
"Where are you then?" Marguerite asked. In his annual Christmas letter, Dan had written about Renata's infatuation with her literature classes, her work-study job in the admissions office, and her roommate, but he had hinted nothing about her summer plans.
"I'm here on Nantucket," Renata said. "I'm at 21 Federal."
Marguerite suddenly felt very warm; sweat broke out on her forehead and under her arms. And menopause for her had ended sometime during the first Clinton administration.
"You're here?" Marguerite said.
"For the weekend. Until Sunday. I'm here with my fiancé."
"His name is Cade," Renata said. "His family has a house on Hulbert Avenue."
Marguerite stroked the fraying satin edge of her summer blanket. Fiancé at age nineteen? And Dan had allowed it? The boy must be rich, Marguerite thought sardonically. Hulbert Avenue. But even she had a hard time believing that Dan would give Renata away while she was still a teenager. People didn't change that fundamentally. Daniel Knox would always be the father holding possessively on to his little girl. He had never liked to share her.
Marguerite realized Renata was waiting for an answer. "I see."
"His parents know all about you," Renata said. "They used to eat at the restaurant. They said it was the best place. They said they miss it."
"That's very nice," Marguerite said. She wondered who Cade's parents were. Had they been regulars or once-a-summer people? Would Marguerite recognize their names, their faces? Had they said anything else to Renata about what they knew, or thought they knew?
"I'm dying to come see you," Renata said. "Cade wants to meet you, too, but I told him I want to come by myself."
"Of course, dear," Marguerite said. She straightened in bed so that her posture was as perfect as it had been nearly sixty years ago, ballet class, Madame Verge asking her students to pretend there was a wire that ran from the tops of their heads to the ceiling. Chins up, mes choux! Marguerite was so happy she thought she might levitate. Her heart was buoyant. Renata was here on Nantucket; she wanted to see Marguerite. "Come tomorrow night. For dinner. Can you?"
"Of course!" Renata said. "What time would you like me?"
"Seven thirty," Marguerite said. At Les Parapluies, the bar had opened each night at six thirty and dinner was served at seven thirty. Marguerite had run the restaurant on that strict timetable for years without many exceptions, or much of an eye toward profitability.
"I'll be there," Renata said.
"Five Quince Street," Marguerite said. "You'll be able to find it?"
"Yes," said Renata. In the background there was a burst of laughter. "So I'll see you tomorrow night, Aunt Daisy, okay?"
"Okay," Marguerite said. "Good night, dear."
With that, Marguerite had replaced the heavy black receiver in its cradle and thought, Only for her.
Marguerite had not cooked a meal in fourteen years.
Copyright © 2006 by Elin Hilderbrand
Table of Contents
Part One Provisions,
August 19, 2006 6:30 A.M.,
Part Two The Dinner Party,
August 19, 2006 6:32 P.M.,
A Reading Group Gold Selection,
In Her Own Words,
Food for Thought,
Keep on Reading,
Reading Group Questions,
Reading Group Guide
Food for Thought
The Dinner Party
She pulled out her blender and added the ingredients for the pots de crème: eggs, sugar, half a cup of her morning coffee, heavy cream, and eight ounces of melted Scharffen Berger chocolate. What could be easier?—Marguerite Beale, self-exiled chef in The Love Season
Nantucket author Elin Hilderbrand is making dinner. This is not the Black Angus steak cheeseburgers and Bartlett corn she would normally serve her husband and three children on a steamy summer day. This is a very special dinner—the same dinner her protagonist, Marguerite Beale, makes in Hilderbrand's fifth novel, The Love Season.
A fictitious chef who has given up cooking to punish herself after her best friend's death, Beale crafts the dinner only because her godchild is coming for the first time—to learn more about her dead mother.
Hilderbrand is making the dinner for twelve people who helped inspire the novel, which she originally titled ‘‘The Dinner Party.'' The group is gathering at 5 Quince St., in the circa 1730s home where the novel is set.
At 11:30 a.m., Hilderbrand darts into the fish market to pick up smoked mussels, which she will serve with a homemade aioli. ‘‘In the book, Marguerite smokes the oysters herself, but that's beyond me,'' Hilderbrand says, driving toward Bartlett's Farm to pick up fresh dill, basil, and thyme, along with island-grown tomatoes and zucchini. In the novel, Hilderbrand specifically notes that Marguerite does not go to Bartlett's Farm, but says the farm she does visit is modeled on the local landmark.
Making a novel dinner
Then, it's back to the house Hilderbrand and her family are renting while their own home—just down the street—is being remodeled. Although some of her equipment—like her tart pan—has disappeared into a box marked ‘‘assorted kitchen stuff,'' Hilderbrand is unfazed.
The biggest challenge to making dinner for twelve, she says, is the refrigerator—finding ingredients in it and then finding space for things like the chocolate pots de crème, which need refrigerating until the 7 p.m. dinner. She plops down in front of the open refrigerator, to start rearranging from the bottom shelf up. Reading The Love Season and then watching Hilderbrand make this meal is a little odd—like playing with a set of nesting dolls or strolling through a house of mirrors.
One can see Hilderbrand in Marguerite, in the list each makes to plan the dinner; in the way the author expertly cracks eggs into the blender for pots de crème and uses her own morning coffee; and the fact that she actually says, ‘‘What could be easier?''—unaware she is echoing the words she put in Marguerite's mouth when writing the book sitting on the beach a year ago.
‘‘There's a little bit of me in Marguerite, in how I cook,'' Hilderbrand says.
And, yes, that's her jogging in Morocco, unaware—like her character, Candace Harris Knox—that her blonde hair, baseball cap, and running shorts would draw so much attention in the Muslim country.
"The Love Season's scene in Morocco was a conscious effort on my part to get one of our travels into a book,'' says Hilderbrand, who traveled extensively with her husband, Cliffside Beach Club manager Chip Cunningham, in Southeast Asia before they started a family.
Capturing the island
But The Love Season and Hilderbrand's other novels are also a reflection—and usually a composite—of the people, places, and experiences she encounters living on Nantucket.
Cunningham (a character in his wife's first Nantucket book) says many repeat customers at the hotel he manages look forward to his wife publishing a new novel each season.
‘‘It's part of what they associate with Nantucket,'' he says. ‘‘I'll have Elin come down and sign it for them.''
Hilderbrand sees her books as souvenirs—little pieces of the island visitors can take home with them to evoke the feeling of Nantucket long after they've left.
The Love Season earned a four-star critic's choice rating in June from People magazine reviewer Sue Corbett, who wrote, ‘‘Hilderbrand, who wrote 2002's Nantucket Nights, serves up a mouth-watering menu, keeps the Veuve Clicquot flowing and tops it all with a dollop of mystery that will have even drowsy sunbathers turning pages until the very satisfying end.''
Hilderbrand honed her writing skills at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop. Her cooking got its polish from taking lessons with cookbook author and former Que Sera Sarah owner, Sarah Leah Chase, one of the guests she has invited to this dinner. Hilderbrand explains how she decided to write a couple of novels (The Love Season and The Blue Bistro) based specifically on Nantucket's food scene: ‘‘I did the hotel books, and a restaurant owner came up and said to me, ‘You could never write about a restaurant. It would be too scandalous.' I thought, ‘Aha, then I have to write it.' ''
She prepped by reading copiously, from Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential to Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires. She redoubled her usual food magazine reading of publications like Gourmet, Bon Appetit, and Food & Wine.
‘‘Rarely do I come across something on a menu that I don't know what it is,'' says Hilderbrand, who eats out frequently with her husband.
To further give her books a sense of behind-the-scenes restaurant work, Hilderbrand volunteered to work at Nantucket's well-known 21 Federal restaurant during Christmas Stroll one year. They told her she could pour water, then demoted her to the coat room, saying they were afraid she would spill the water. But she interviewed chefs, bartenders, and waiters, soaking in details—like the banter among kitchen workers—which she re-creates in the conversation between brothers who work in the kitchen of The Blue Bistro.
Jane Silva, former owner of the Galley at Cliffside Beach Club (the model for The Blue Bistro), is one of several muses Hilderbrand invited to this re-creation of The Love Season dinner. Silva spent hours telling Hilderbrand stories about The Opera House, a now-closed, glamorous restaurant where the island's artists gathered and Silva once saw Judy Garland sitting on the piano to sing. Silva says that The Opera House chef, the late Lucien Van Vyve, was her mentor and friend, who often hosted elaborate dinner parties, with hand-painted menus, at his home in the off-season.
Now a T-shirt and souvenir shop, The Opera House is the model for Marguerite's restaurant, Les Parapluies, which, in the book, drew ardent fans willing to eat whatever chef Marguerite felt like having on the prix fixe menu that night.
‘‘It wasn't so much a reflection of The Opera House as it was that she captured the mood of those grand old restaurants,'' Silva says, sitting on the terrace at 5 Quince St.
Dining with friends
On the night of the dinner party, it is quickly apparent that the dining room of the 275-year-old house was not built to accommodate a dozen. Since her book focuses strongly on female friendship, Hilderbrand asks the guys if they would mind sitting in the kitchen. After some good-natured ribbing about being relegated to the kids' table, they cordially agree.
But first, Hilderbrand says raising her glass: ‘‘All of you were important to me while I was writing this book, and that's why we're here. A toast to all of you!''
Dusk is falling hard outside the dining room's bay window as the women sit down to feast on dinner and conversation. Someone asks Wendy Hudson how things are going at the bookstore she owns downtown; someone else asks about when a neighbor will be back on island. As wineglasses are refilled, there's talk about how local produce compares to hothouse; and about the stifling hot weather, which has caused Hilderbrand's homemade baguettes to rise beyond the edges of the pan and form tasty globs of bread.
But quickly, conversations around the table shift to more personal topics: how couples met, children, grandchildren, and friendships. In the wash of words, in the candlelit dining room, it is easy to see these island ties; to imagine Marguerite Beale and her godchild, Renata Harris, in this place, resurrecting secrets of past and present.
By Gwenn Friss, Food Editor
Excerpted from Cape Cod Times © 2006
Reading Group Questions
1. What is the love season? Is it a place in time? An environment? A feeling? Take a moment to discuss the meaning of the title.
2. A show of hands: Who has been to the island of Nantucket? How is it similar or different than portrayed in The Love Season? Others: Does this book make you want to go there for a visit?
3. The action in The Love Season centers around two elaborate meals: the one Marguerite prepares for Renata, and the dinner party at the Driscoll's. What is the significance of food—how it's prepared, served, and appreciated—in The Love Season? Discuss the dynamics, and politics, of the dining table.
4. In what ways is reading a good novel like eating a good meal? Are readers ever truly satisfied at "The End"? Or are they always left hungry for more?
5. What are the themes of hunger and nourishment that resonate throughout Marguerite's life? And in this novel?
6. Renata believed that Marguerite was like a shipwreck—she had, somewhere within her hull, a treasure trove of information about Candace. Do you think, in the end, that Renata found the answers she was looking for? Can one individual ever reveal the "truth" about another's life? How is it possible to discover someone's essence after death?
7. Talk about the characters' lives off the island of Nantucket—in Paris, Morocco, and New York City. What did these outside locations reveal about the inner lives of Marguerite, Candace, and Renata respectively?
8. During a moment of romantic desperation, the younger Marguerite had asked herself: Did love fall into categories, or was it a continuum? Were there right ways to love and wrong ways, or was there just love and its object? How might the more "modern" Renata answer these questions? How would you?
9. Discuss the symbolism of Renoir's Les Parapluies painting as it's represented and referenced in the book. (You may wish to have a reproduction of it on hand during your meeting as well.)
10. Marguerite, during her early visits with Porter, played a game called "One Word." What word would each member of your group use to describe The Love Season?