A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love
By Eufemia Fantetti, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2013, 86 pages
In A Recipe for Disaster, Eufemia Fantetti limns a domestic world where women in particular — sometimes depressed, sometimes violent — abuse and abandon their husbands, lovers, sons and daughters. And yet, the most common notations I’ve made in my copy of the book are exclamation marks.
Eufemia Fantetti knows how to wield her wry, sardonic and intelligent wit, by turns a paring knife, for intricate work and control, and a spatula, for the well-timed turn and scrape of family life. A world where unhappy marriages slam children up against walls and drag young adults into the depths of insomniac-wracked relationships, where the only comfort is food.
On the front cover of A Recipe for Disaster, a 1950s doll-like, aproned woman stares dementedly past the string of batter dripping from her mixing spoon. Her shadow suggests that Betty Crocker really did have a (very) dark side; the shadow of the dripping spoon across her chest suggests the rawness of inner feeling, a bleeding heart. Each of the stories in this debut collection invokes food as a trope for our hunger — to connect with lovers, family and self – and our insatiable need for comfort when our hunger is not, or cannot be, met.
The opening, title story, begins like a recipe:
PREP TIME: Imprecise
COOK TIME: In Season
YIELD: Serves 2
Meet someone you are ¼ compatible with. Base this compatibility ½ on the fact that you are carbon-based life forms and ½ on your sad pasts.
Eve, struggling with insomnia and overeating, starts to see a counsellor when she realizes that all she and her boyfriend Adam (who “always orders ribs”) have in common is “their mutual dislike of green peppers, celery and certain celebrities.” Read that sentence out loud to see and hear how it works so beautifully. In her grief, Eve turns on the oven despite the summer heat and goes on a baking binge. She delivers her loaves of bread and fishes, er, apple crisps, to neighbours. Soon thereafter, Eve “develops a mild intolerance to gluten, lactose and Adam.” (Think of the hilarious biblical repercussions of this).
Unlike the mother in the background of the title story, whom we are told served up “shredded guilt garnished with lament,” the mother in “Sweets” is a not-ready-for-prime-time horror show. She waves her cigarette around, using her young daughter for an ashtray, and warns the child to stay away from her drunken boyfriend after he shows the child a scrap of affection:
“… she slammed me up against the kitchen wall and yelled, ‘Don’t go getting any ideas!’ I felt the snap in my arm all the way to my teeth.”
This story has a great first line: “When the police arrive, Mamma is calm, her forehead smooth like the Buddha on Mr. Steinberger’s desk in the school detention room.” It reminds me of the evil/innocence foreboding in the superbly contracted first line of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ Fern said to her mother.”
Eufemia Fantetti deftly shows the malice and passive aggression in a soured relationship in “Loss of Appetite,” through the making of a sandwich:
“She made him a sandwich of shaved Black Forest ham and cheddar cheese with mayonnaise because he is allergic to dairy and has been trying, unsuccessfully, to lose weight. He will be forced to hate her at lunch, and she reasons that will curb his appetite.”
This is typical of Eufemia Fantetti’s style – understated, hard hitting.
She’s also suddenly funny, but not necessarily the laugh-out-loud kind; more the purse-your-lips-in-glee-and-look-for-someone-to-tell kind:
“I stare at him, sitting across from me, still wearing his barbeque apron. He wears it every time he cooks, and each time I see it, I think, this must be what it feels like to lose an erection.”
A Recipe for Disaster is subtitled “& Other Unlikely Tales of Love.” But none of the tales is at all unlikely. They are desperately, if tragically, quotidian. For the subtitle, I would be more inclined to use a line from the last story: “some things are broken and cannot be fixed.” Maybe this is why my least favourite of the stories is “The Hunger” – it has a more overtly hope-y ending than the others, more of a ‘and then she picked herself up and moved on’ kind of thing, a bit tidy. But this tells you more about me than anything else. This same story has a fabulous scene of every ex’s nightmare: to be dragged out in public after weeks of feeling sorry for yourself at home, only to have your ex walk in to the same restaurant where you are sitting, fat, and unkempt, in plain view. And your ex is with someone lean and lovely and they look happy and very, very kempt.
And while we’re on the subject of subjectivity, there are a few exchanges like the following, where simpleton-sayers are put in their place, to my deep satisfaction:
“… But he was better now; he’d read The Secret. He slurped his java chip frappuccino and talked about the fundamental law of attraction: positivity attracts and negativity repels.
‘Except in magnets,’ I said.”
There’s one line in particular that stopped me, probably because I wasn’t at all expecting it, and I find myself going back to it in my mind. I’m just going to leave it dangling here for you, as well. In “Punch Drunk” a dad teaches his son how to box: “The world is a dangerous place for boys without mothers.”
In “The Bread of Life,” the protagonist, estranged from her mother, relates a dream she has wherein she is presented with the bleeding heart of Jesus, on a wooden tea tray. (There are two or three short dream scenes in these stories, all handled well, a difficult and, some would say, risky undertaking for a debut writer). Her mother appears with St. Jude, then grabs the saint’s club and starts to beat the heart out of her daughter’s hands before raising her own hand to strike her daughter’s face. The mother turns to St. Jude to introduce her daughter:
“’My daughter. The one I’ve been praying to you about for all these years. She still doesn’t know how to consume the body of Christ and not his bleeding, aching heart.”
After you’ve read the entire book, re-read this section, then skip to the last line of the book and re-read that, then go back and forth between them, like a child scrounging for a morsel of affection in a deeply wounded and broken family. You won’t thank me for this tip, but you’ll know what I mean.
I want to talk about the physicality of this book. I happen to have a soft spot for small books; I am drawn to them as I am drawn more to the backyard studio than the big house. Where most trade books are punched out at 9 x 7 inches, A Recipe for Disaster is 8 x 5 1/2. Its thick, glossy cover is more-or-less spill proof: not a necessary quality in a work of fiction, but it lends a cookbook-like quality. At first I had trouble with the pink front cover, both because I don’t like the colour baby pink, and because I worry that this will girl-ghetto the book in bookstores and libraries. But as it sat on my nightstand and desk for the past couple of weeks, I began to see that the pink-and-blue cover colours serve to underscore the drama of the domestic scenes between the French flaps. But still, I worry.
I had a chat with Mona Fertig, of Mother Tongue Publishing (that is, she is Mother Tongue Publishing), and I asked her if she had any behind-the-scenes stories about A Recipe for Disaster. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this: Mona approached Eufemia Fantetti, by email, and asked her if she had a manuscript ready for consideration for publication. Eufemia did, sent it to Mona (who loved it), and, A Recipe for Disaster was published. (But Mona is quick to point out that all the books she publishes are sent out to experienced editors first, including Eufemia’s).
Before you roll your green eyes, here’s the important part of that story. Small presses sometimes work this way. They ask around. They put out calls for submissions. In this case, Mona Fertig asked the writers she knows as well as some of the mentors in writing programs, and one of the names she got was Eufemia Fantetti – because Eufemia Fantetti has been writing and studying writing for years and her mentors spoke well of her. And, the most important part of this story is that, Yes, she had a manuscript ready. When her ship (okay, canoe) came in, Eufemia Fantetti was not only on the dock, she was packed and picnic ready. This impressed Mona who hasn’t published many short story collections.
A Recipe for Disaster, at six stories and 86 pages, is a short, short story collection. But as Mona Fertig said, “some writers tend to pad their collection. I thought the six Eufemia sent me were wonderful as they were.” She’s right. They easily pull their own weight.
I think of A Recipe for Disaster as an amuse-bouche, that lovely and unexpected delicacy that the talented chef sends out to your table to please and impress you, to whet your appetite and raise your expectations for what’s to come. I’d like to see what Eufemia (pronounced Eu-FEE-mia) Fantetti will give us next. I think that if she gives herself the room to maneuvre, in either longer stories or a longer work of fiction, the hard-hitting, understated drama, poignant humour and compelling dialogue will spread out before us, like a gingham table cloth, weighted down on one side by a line like her, “I’m in mourning for my life,” and on the other, “I had to stop [reading poetry]. It made me want to kill myself.”
Somewhere between the poles of family tragedy and despair-fueled, intelligent, life-saving comedy, is a 5-course meal that I want Eufemia Fantetti to make me. My expectations have been raised. My napkin is ironed.