‘When in Doubt’
My female hormones sometimes hijack my body. On one such occasion, I decided to read “When in Doubt, Add Butter” by Beth Harbison. The novel was like romantic crack, laden with optimism and romantic sweetness. It satisfied my hormones but left a bad taste in my soul, momentarily tricking me into believing that fairy tales might actually exist.
The novel centers on Gemma, a personal chef who cooks for families in their homes. Though she gave up a lucrative career to cook, Gemma is content in her job, though it’s not entirely without a few negatives. Indeed, Gemma is carefree and worries little about her existence here on Earth at the beginning of the novel. I adored and admired her blithe, headstrong character who creates her own existence.
But as is the plight for all independent, confident women in the romantic genre, she suddenly finds herself lonely, weak and pitiful.
As a woman in her 40s, the urge catches up with her and she realizes she lacks an essential element to happiness — a man. Predictably, “Fate” brings her a man in the shape of a one night stand who lights up her life and seems to be exactly perfect for her. He saps most of her focus and energy meanwhile, Gemma’s career begins to spiral downward with a string of misfortunate clients. And, like so many people, she doesn’t have money saved for emergencies.
The more I read Gemma’s development, the more I cringed at Harbison’s creation of this female protagonist. Why do women in books suddenly find their deepest longing in life to be a man? Harbison’s fantastical and sadly predictable world proved disappointing as I guessed most of the plot twists and longed for her to surprise me.
The one redeeming factor remains the dialogue. Harbison captured witty banter several times, and I found myself chuckling aloud at a few of the jokes that slipped in slyly. She planned moments that captured some of the great humor of the context of a situation. Yet, I desired that she let the rest of the novel ring truer with realism just like the dialogue.
Overall, the book left me with a fuzzy glow much as a Hallmark movie would, but also failed to satisfy my reading needs much as rice leaves you full only to eat again two hours later.
Harbinson’s dialogue mixed with a little of Fitzgerald’s stark reality and a dash of Shakespeare’s plot would make a really stellar novel. Now that recipe screams for a reading much more than Harbinson’s “When in Doubt, Add Butter.”
This book feels like an appetizer; definitely not a main dish. As a simple, feel good romance it succeeded admirably; however, it certainly could not satiate my literary hunger. So, if in a meaningless existence where you long for sappy love or your hormones kidnapped you, grab some Bonbons, a drink and read this book.
Otherwise, if predictable romances cause gagging, grab something heartier and a little more believable, perhaps “Les Miserables.”
‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
As a pseudo-intellectual I jump at the opportunity to view screenings for independent films, one because I thoroughly enjoy watching movies that rely more on acting, writing etc. than on big-budget explosions, but mostly because it builds my street cred as a movie critic. However, sometimes the little films bite off more than they can chew as is the case with famed Bollywood director Mira Nair’s (Monsoon Wedding) “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”
Nair attempts in two hours to weave an assortment of lessons in an effort to enlighten the audience, but instead the viewer is left feeling a bit dumbfounded as the story delves into the evils of capitalism and prejudice. The story starts out with Changez (Riz Ahmed) a college professor in Lahore, Pakistan, sitting down for an interview with Bobby Lincoln (Live Shcrieber), an American journalist. The interview is under the guise of an article; however, it becomes quickly apparent that Lincoln is simple trying to get information on the whereabouts of an American college professor who works at the same university as Changez. Though Changez knows Lincoln is a “Spook” and works for the CIA, he decides it makes sense to tell Lincoln his life’s story.
So, the film begins a series of flashbacks as Changez goes from a wealthy Pakistani neighborhood to Ivy League Princeton. After four years of undergraduate work, Changez separates himself and is accepted into a big Wallstreet firm, headed by Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), and quickly becomes a consulting savant – swiftly rising through the ranks. At 25, Changez is living the American dream with wealth and an artsy girlfriend played by a very plump Kate Hudson, but then the towers fall. Suddenly, being Pakistani in America is no longer ideal.
Occasionally, the film flashes back to current-day Lahore presumably to develop a poorly conceived political thriller. Changez, who to this point has had everything go his way, begins to experience hardship. He is strip-searched at an airport, called a few names, mistakenly arrested and his girlfriend, who from the get-go is emotionally and mentally unstable, hosts an art show that embarrasses Changez by delving into their relationship. However, he ultimately has a change of heart about his career when on a business trip he’s tasked with closing down a publisher in Istanbul, Turkey. At about this point is when the story becomes confusing, is Changez disillusioned with Capitalism, America or both? He tells Lincoln while interviewed that he was awed by the audacity of the 9/11 terrorists – referring to David and Goliath. Eventually, Changez heads back to Pakistan where he’s shown sulking for a time before becoming a college professor who lectures on revolution. The film quickly turns to present-day Pakistan and their interview. Here the film’s ambitious, though flawed, story about culture clashes mixes with an awkward attempt at a political thriller. I won’t spoil the “suspenseful” climax, but it certainly isn’t unique.
Nair tried albeit unsuccessfully to dissect the cultural divide and inform the audience. At times you can sympathize with Changez, certainly no one enjoys harsh words or suspicious stares. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to truly empathize with a character who came from wealth, became wealthier in pursuit of the American Dream and then changed his mind because of a few name calling incidents and a failed relationship. Instead, Changez came across as a privileged individual who was forced to confront obstacles and found it difficult to overcome. He had a severe case of tender heart syndrome. A more interesting story would have been Changez finding the fortitude to triumph over ignorance, which is prevalent in every country and culture though you wouldn’t know it from the film.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is rated R for language, some violence and brief sexuality.