McKinlay’s latest (after 2011’s The View From Here) finds a bestselling American novelist connecting with one of his British fans as he nears his 50th birthday and she anticipates her daughter’s wedding. Jackson Cooper, who fancies himself a man’s man, lashes out at the women around him after his wife leaves him for a woman. He’s suffering from writer’s block and the feeling that he hasn’t penned anything important. Jack has turned his creative impulses toward cooking, but the beautiful, well-meaning vegetarian he’s dating doesn’t appreciate any of it. He shares his love of food with Eve Petworth, whose mean late mother, Virginia, still casts a shadow over her life in the form of Eve’s brash daughter Izzy, whom Virginia raised. When an engaged-to-be-married Izzy contacts her estranged father Simon, it exacerbates Eve’s anxiety disorder. Both Eve and Jack are idle and rich, as evidenced by their free time and many mentions of their maids cleaning up in the background. They romanticize one another and claim that their meager letters and recipe exchanges serve as stress relief. Jack tries to get Eve to meet him in Paris every now and then, but unbeknownst to him, her condition prevents it. Readers will appreciate the way McKinlay captures emotional truths, but the puerility of her protagonists often hinders enjoyment. (Feb.)
British novelist McKinlay (The View from Here, 2011) offers a not-quite love affair through letters and emails between a wildly successful American writer and a lonely, well-to-do British woman. Long-divorced Eve Petworth has lived a reclusive if privileged life (driving a Bentley and never holding a job) in the English countryside. Shy and prone to anxiety attacks, she relinquished much of the control over her daughter Izzy's upbringing to her overpowering mother, Virginia. With the grown-up Izzy now engaged to marry and Virginia recently deceased, Eve potters about her beautiful house gardening and cooking; her only friend is her housekeeper. Eve seems an unlikely fan of popular American author Jackson Cooper's macho detective novels, but she appreciates the sensual way he writes about food and sends him a letter to say so. Approaching 50 and recently divorced for the second time, Jack is emotionally shaky and having trouble starting his next novel. Attracted to Eve's straightforwardness and love of food, he responds to her note, and a correspondence begins. The letters and emails, full of culinary conversation and ruminations on the human condition, offer Eve and Jack both a respite as each faces his or her own separate crisis. Jack, who has a Filipino houseboy for his house in the Hamptons and whose best friend is an actor named Dex, seems a British fantasy of American literary hunkiness--readers are repeatedly assured how well-written his best-sellers are. Nevertheless, Jack, who, while corresponding with Eve, has begun a doomed romance with beautiful ice princess Adrienne, is beset by midlife self-doubt. Meanwhile, Eve faces difficult truths about her relationship with Izzy, who has reconnected with her father, Simon, who turns out not to be an evil ex after all. Early on, before their epistolary intimacy deepens, Jack suggests he and Eve meet for a culinary rendezvous in Paris, a romantic fantasy that may or may not come to fruition. While mousy Eve and sensitive Marlborough Man Jack never quite grab the reader's imagination, McKinlay wisely eschews easy romantic clichés.
How rewarding to perch on the shoulder of a character Barbara Pym might have conjured-a late bloomer who possesses "brickish stoicism" and brews tea on an Aga. So when the British author Deborah McKinlay takes us to "the depths of the English countryside, in a house that was an advertisement for the English countryside," we recognize that a Lively voice-à la Penelope, that is-will be reporting with wry detachment and affection.
That Part Was True is part epistolary, beginning with a fan letter sent by Eve Petworth to Jackson Cooper, a Robert-Parkeresque, best-selling American novelist. Cooking earns a starring role in their correspondence; as it continues, he begins to think of her as "his food friend," enjoying on paper "a chaste, if warm, thing based on a mutual interest."
Poor Eve, a divorced romantic pessimist, suffers anxiety attacks, brought on by almost anything outside her four walls. Her daughter, Izzy, and Eve herself consider Eve to have been very bad at mothering. And now Izzy's coming wedding introduces additional angst in the form of Simon, the long-estranged ex-husband and thrice-married father, who is making up for lost time and absent scruples.
Equal space is devoted to Jack, twice-divorced, sort of enjoying bachelorhood in the Hamptons. "For the past 15 years, women had been trying to please him. Not many had managed it." Several now seem "gluey." Especially skillfully rendered is his affair with a diffident New Yorker, Adrienne, a dispenser of unwanted editorial advice. Worse-she's a vegetarian who hardly eats! Mineral water and a salad don't keep good company with omnivore, gourmand Jack. Far-off Eve, on the other hand, is a safe, quixotic object of affection and a source of recipes.
Will a culinary correspondence ("Mutton is good with plums") be enough to fan a flame? I worried that invitations to rendezvous in Paris were premature and unearned or, as Eve's housekeeper warns, "dodgy." But mercifully, Jack and Eve think so too. Jack wishes "he hadn't said that stuff to Eve; it sounded pretentious in the daylight."
Will these pen pals actually meet in a cafe on the Left Bank? McKinlay teases us, allowing them to correspond with a bit more ardor than their nonacquaintance warrants. If we occasionally wince at Jack baring his soul, going poetic, and with Eve responding in kind ("When it had all gone-my buoyant roundness and openness to joy-when it had been stripped away, I tried to forget everything"), we understand that distance and semi-anonymity are making them brave.
I won't say where their missives lead, but I will applaud the sensible outcome. This is England, after all, and we trust that Mrs. Petworth won't do anything rash.Elinor Lipman, New York Times Book Review
A charming and quick read, That Part was True introduces two innocuous, somewhat lonely, characters who forge an unlikely friendship through mailed letters. The pair's platonic relationship is comforting and reliably innocent, yet their discussion of food and love is wonderfully sensory. The ending is hardly unexpected, but provides a nice wrap-up to this quiet, slice-of-life tale.After British mother Eve Petworth writes a fan letter to successful American author Jackson Cooper, the two begin a pen-pal friendship that helps Eve cope with her daughter's impending marriage and Jackson with his floundering love life. Over a shared love of food and a common loneliness, the two post-middle-aged friends make plans to meet in Paris. [4 stars]Leah Hanson, RT Book Reviews