The title of Erin McGraw’s sixth novel, Better Food for a Better World(Cascade Books, 2013), is misleading until you are deep into the story, when the painful irony emerges that “better food” is ice cream and a “better world” is no clearer than a summer haze. The book opens with an epigraph by Wendell Berry: “Marriages to marriages are joined, husband and wife are plighted to all husbands and wives, any life has all lives for its delight.” These lines capture the heart—and sickness at the heart—of McGraw’s story.
The novel focuses on the intertwined stories of three married couples that collectively own an ice cream shop (“Natural High Ice Cream”) and have pledged their loyalty to each other through a marriage support group (“Life Ties”). The slogans of “Life Ties” and “Natural High” appear again and again throughout the novel, whether in conversation, in a character’s mind, or printed on a paper napkin. For instance: “Know your visions. Embrace Your Vision. Make Your Vision.” and “Consistency, Commitment, Contentment.” These sayings expose an ideal no one can, or at least no one is willing to, live up to. It is an intimate world of profound unhappiness, difficult relationships, and unfulfilled potential.
Vivy and Sam are certainly the most intriguing and dynamic couple to observe because behind their cynical humor and façade of “honest,” playful dialogue about unfaithfulness there is painful secrecy. They live inside a marriage creaking with boundaries and jealousies, and they practice a completely different life philosophy than the ones espoused, as Vivy clearly reveals when she says, “A commitment doesn’t mean you’re locked into place.”
Although Vivy is not the only character that wants to escape the current situation—some have an ideal existing in the past or future that they wish to inhabit—she seems to be the only one thinking for herself and fighting for change in the present. Speaking about Natural High, she says, “Maybe we should expand our vision. I think it’s time.” Nancy—a controlling, high-strung woman—responds, “We have a partnership,” revealing that the ties between these couples are no longer a network of support but rather of chains.
The one thing this community of people seems to know how to do well is fail expectations. Stemming from the nature of their declared interconnectedness but practiced deceitfulness comes disappointment and carelessness. They disappoint each other as friends, as co-workers, as spouses. They even fail themselves, as Cecilia—who is talented enough to be a professional violinist but instead bores herself teaching kids the instrument in her living room—confesses, “There are days when I look at my life and I don’t recognize one thing about it.”
However, the biggest hindrance to the novel’s success is that for the first sixty pages McGraw shifts between the six main characters so much that it is hard to sympathize with any of them. More than once I found myself looking back at the inside flap of the book to remember who was who, as the individual voices of the characters felt indistinct from each other. McGraw attempts to avoid this confusion by cycling the chapter titles between only three characters: Vivy, Cecilia, and Sam. But this ends up being more confusing than helpful because I felt I was led to arbitrarily focus my gaze on one character—but then not given anything substantial or revealing to hold onto.
To her credit, McGraw does draw her characters in imaginatively evocative ways, describing Nancy’s “vanilla-white forearms” and David as “uncomplicated as water,” and engages the characters in witty dialogue. McGraw also uses the rising summer temperatures to mirror the increasing heat—infidelity, anger, anxiety—existing in the relationships, forcing them to face truth and hard decisions. However, the building climax is like a melting ice cream cone: it takes too long to get there, and once it’s there—there’s nothing left.
This stickiness disrupting the flow of the novel is exacerbated by McGraw’s periodic insertion of Entr’acte (meaning “between the acts”) chapters, in which she switches to speaking in the omniscient voice of “we” rather than in third person. At one point the narrator asserts, “The slogan says secrets are toxic, but here’s quite the corollary, more correct: around a group like this, there are no secrets.” Entr’acte chapters frequently provide explicit commentary like this, which prevents the story from organically speaking for itself. Similarly, when Nancy laments, “We’re not going to change people’s lives with ice cream,” it’s one of those “duh” moments; this does not need telling. Secrets may be toxic, but leaving a bit more mystery and implicit meaning in the story wouldn’t be such a terrible thing.
Everyone is miserable, lost, and disillusioned, and it remains that way throughout, but perhaps McGraw’s point is that life doesn’t have to be that way. You won’t find redemption in this story—mostly just depressed characters—but at the end there are subtle tastes of hope, love, and authenticity amid the bitterness of arguments, secrecy, and unfaithfulness. What McGraw does succeed in illuminating is that humans lie to each other about all kinds of things—but mostly because they want to be found out: “We’re here because we want to hear our own mouths speak the truth. We want to see our lives as we’ve never seen them before.”
The book is not about better food at all, or even better jobs or better marriages; it’s about the craving for better human connection: “Through a new community we build a new world.”
Amanda DeVos was born and raised in the small ski town of Steamboat Springs, CO, and spent most of her childhood playing outdoors and writing stories on her typewriter. She graduated from Westmont College with a degree in English. Amanda has had work published as a journalist, poet, photographer, and editor, and she is a daily participant in the creative process as project manager and editor for a design agency in Santa Barbara, CA.
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