Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shakespeare's Kitchen

I didn't intend to take a week long break from blogging, but the kick-off of the holiday season got the better of me. Between eating leftovers, decorating my apartment, and causing undue stress for myself on Cyber Monday as I spent the night watching a site I wanted to order from crash, my thoughts about Shakespeare's Kitchen kept getting pushed to the back of my mind. There appears to be multiple books with that title, so to be clear, the one I'm talking about isn't this cookbook, featuring Renaissance recipes for the modern cook, but rather the short story collection by Lore Segal.

The stories in this collection are all linked and build upon each other, very much in the vein of Olive Kitteridge if that book were less poignant and more quirky. Segal's stories follow Ilka Weisz, an academic who leaves her New York City circle of friends to take up a position at a university in a seemingly bucolic Connecticut town. There she slowly finds her place within a new circle of friends, at the center of which are Leslie and Eliza Shakespeare of the book's title.

The first stories in the collection chronicle Ilka's feeling of loneliness and her attempts to ingratiate herself with potential new friends. The writing style throughout the book, and particularly in these early stories, allows the reader to experience some of the same feelings that Ilka experiences. Names and brief descriptions of supporting characters are presented one after another, creating a sense of confusion that is much like Ilka's when she is first dropped into a large set of new acquaintances. Segal seems to view everything with a wry sense of humor and uses many unique, almost gleeful descriptions of mundane things, like when Ilka eats a "triangle of pizza that behaved like Dali's watch and kept folding away from her mouth". At first, this writing style alone made the stories delightful to read. As the larger narrative of the linked stories progressed, however, I found myself getting more and more annoyed by Ilka. In the beginning, her fumbling attempts at making new friends are sympathetic and relateable. I viewed her as the character to root for as she butted up against other characters' eccentricities. Once Ilka found her footing among her new group, my attitude began to change. Her own eccentricities and shortcomings became apparent and at certain times I found my loyalties shifting to favor the supporting characters over Ilka. Although this fact made me lose reading steam the further I got into the book, I can't really disparage it because in some ways it's just another example of my earlier point, about how the writing style mimics the emotional experiences of the characters. Over the course of the stories in the collection, we see Ilka as a lonely outsider, then as the new friend in the group, who delights and is delighted by everyone around her, and finally as a settled insider, who has deep relationships, both good and bad, with various members of her circle. The evolution of my feelings toward her during the course of my reading very much matched the fictional evolution of characters' attitudes toward each other as the plot progressed. I can't help but think that's an impressive feat for a story collection to achieve, regardless of the personal enjoyment I got from reading it.


  1. I hadn't heard of this author or book, but I'm really fond of the linked stories structure. And, though it can be unsettling, I like when characters evolve and my feelings about them evolve, too. Sounds like a gem!

    1. I'd definitely recommend giving it a try. It's actually growing on my now that I have some distance from the time I was reading it.



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