Books

The Scent of Cardamom Pistachio Cookies Radiates from the Pages of 'Tomorrow There Will be Apricots'

The novel’s plot is conventional and unsurprising, but Jessica Soffer’s intelligent and vibrant writing redeems.


Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 336 pages
Author: Jessica Soffer
Price: $24.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-04
Amazon

Everyone has fond memories of certain foods or connections to meals that return us to a different era. These foods become instruments of nostalgia and act as gateways to a past where we are no longer present. Novels can have the same impact, and in a manner akin to Proust’s Madeleine, Jessica Soffer's Tomorrow There Will be Apricots endeavors to couple food with a remembrance of things past.

The novel is centered on the seemingly divergent lives of Lorca, a self-harming teenage girl, and Victoria, a widowed Iraqi-Jewish cook. As the plot develops, it's clear that both Victoria and Lorca suffer from internalized-hatred that is conditioned by their families and cultural histories. Lorca is desperate for her mother’s attention and seeks to reenter her good graces after being expelled from school. Remembering a story her mother tells of a scrumptious dish called Masgouf, Lorca sets out to recreate the dish and her mother’s happy memories. In the process she responds to an advertisement for a cooking class taught by Victoria.

Still reeling from the death of her husband, Joseph, Victoria seeks to reemerge into the world and to reconnect, albeit begrudgingly, with other people. Lorca and Victoria meet, and through the course of the book learn to trust and love themselves and each other. They also learn to accept and reconcile their grim histories. Throughout, Soffer delves into larger topics such as death, connections with family, the importance of voluntary kinship, self-harm outweighing self-worth, guilt, and redemption.

At no point is the plot light or entertaining, but rather depressive throughout. The scenes of Lorca cutting herself are graphic and might cause a trigger-effect in some readers. Yet Soffer establishes herself as a talented and conscientious writer. She expertly paints characters’ connections that transcend their varying cultural conditions. In spite of that, the story itself is weak and the plot at times monotonous. Furthermore, the narrative becomes unnecessarily complicated as a means of avoiding predictability.

Food is a central metaphor. Each character uses food and cooking as methods to heal and define their identity. Victoria has a long history with food: she was a cook who used cooking to express her creativity and affective capabilities. Additionally, Soffer is careful to establish food as a major component of Victoria’s personality and cultural history. For example, Soffer adds tidbits of information about the Iraqi culture according to its foodways: “Yellow vegetables for happiness,’ I corrected her. The Iraqi Jews ate according to color. ‘White for purity. Green apples for hope and prosperity’” (76).

Food also becomes another literary device for Soffer, as she remarkably uses cooking and food as a means to develop characterization. A particularly stunning example is derived from the initial description of the meddlesome neighbor Dottie. As Soffer writes, “in cooking, one poaches in order to keep something delicate from coming apart. In life, it means stealing the delicate thing away. And Dottie was a poacher in the highest order” (202). Soffer fills the pages with breathtaking metaphors and luxuriant symbols, which become the major appeal of the book.

Soffer also excels at conveying the weight of hardships, depression, death, and the anxiety of isolation. Her writing lyrically communicates longstanding, heart wrenching pain that can rarely yield to moments of happiness or love. The scenes in which she describes Victoria listlessly walking around her apartment remembering her deceased husband or the comfort Lorca takes in cutting herself are sad yet unflinchingly poignant. It seems that both Victoria and Lorca find very little self-forgiveness. However, this becomes a major connective trope with the reader. It is the reader’s responsibility to grant Lorca and Victoria absolution. When they cannot forgive themselves for the wrongs they have done or the guilt they endured, it is easy for the reader to grant exculpation.

Yet moments of happiness or recovery are fleeting. Interestingly, it seems that Soffer is commenting on the readers’ own self-identity rather than the characters. Meaning that she is asking us not to actually forgive the characters, but to actually forgive ourselves for whatever may plague us. It’s almost as if Soffer is pushing us to consider: since we can forgive Lorca and Victoria, why can’t we forgive ourselves?

Despite Soffer’s vivacious writing style and the poignant and well-grounded metaphors, the plot is rather humdrum. Soffer attempts to include a few twist-and-turns in the end, but ultimately the reader knows the ending will unfold in one of two ways. The plot twists do not make the story more interesting, but actually render it conventional. The inclusion of several underdeveloped plot points result in convolution and could be excluded. For instance, about three-quarters of the way through, the reader and Victoria learn that Joseph and Dottie had an affair several years prior. This is rather unnecessary, as Joseph is dead and Dottie is barely a secondary character. At this point, the plot becomes too drawn-out.

More so, Soffer attempts to overly develop the secondary characters, such as hurriedly throwing in Blot’s tumultuous history with his family or the dynamics of Lorca’s relationship with her estranged father. It's clear that each of these characters influences the lives and motivations of Lorca and Victoria, but for the most part they serve to divert the attention of the reader away from the main characters. In its entirety, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots falls flat and despite Soffer’s attempt to force-feed it some capriciousness, the novel becomes a predictable and maudlin read.

There are few likable characters: Lorca’s mother is selfish, Dottie is pushy, Victoria and Lorca overly involved in their own melancholy. The only warm emotion connected between reader and character is a type of empathy that eventually becomes exhausting as each character toils in their own grim reality. The women portrayed throughout the book fluctuate between desperate and needy to marginally less desperate and needy. Even when Victoria and Lorca bond together and learn to find love through each other, they are highly dependent on men and seek not only validation from their male partners but also any type of motivation, inspiration, or self-worth. Throughout, it is Joseph who acts as Victoria’s guide and inspiration while Blot encourages Lorca to find some iota of self-worth and understanding.

Not so coincidentally, Blot is responsible for saving Lorca at the end of the book when she has lost control of her cutting. Similarly, her husband mediates Victoria’s successful restaurant and cooking career. Her self-confidence is only exalted when Joseph encourages or reminds her that “I told you all along that you’re a wonder.” (143) Novels about women who hate themselves and are only capable of self-worth when a man saves them from themselves are typical and boring, and it’s a shame to read this in Soffer’s writing. Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots misses an opportunity to create a substantial and complicated sisterhood between Lorca and Victoria that in fact also heals and nourishes, and does not depend exclusively on food or their male companions. Despite the author’s attempt to establish rich characters, the normativity recasts them as caricatures of woman rather than reflections.

The hype circulating around Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is misdirected: the novel’s plot is conventional and unsurprising, but Soffer’s intelligent and vibrant writing redeems the book. Thus, praise needs to be directed towards Soffer and her talent should be admired. The book is worth the time if you are taken with food related metaphors and poetical prose. Otherwise, the predictable ending and the seemingly endless somberness render this a lackluster read.

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