Book review: 'A Place at the Table'

Associated PressJune 15, 2013 

"A Place at the Table" by Susan Rebecca White.

  • Fiction A Place at the Table Susan Rebecca White

    Touchstone, 336 pages

There’s tasty talk about food in “A Place at the Table,” a novel whose main characters have an affinity for the kitchen.

For Bobby Banks, a young gay white man in flight from his Georgia home in 1981, a chef’s job in a legendary Manhattan restaurant puts him on his feet. That same restaurant had played a similar role for Alice Stone, a black woman who made it famous after she left rural North Carolina to escape the abuses of Jim Crow.

In Bobby and Alice, author Susan Rebecca White pays fictional homage to Edna Lewis, whose Cafe Nicholson became a salon for Manhattan literati after World War II, and Scott Peacock, a gay white Southern chef nearly 50 years her junior. The two became close friends and co-chefs called by some “the odd couple of Southern cooking.”

Much like Cafe Nicholson, the novel’s Cafe Andres became a favorite of hip New York writers and artists after it opened in 1947, as Alice began turning out prix fixe feasts. She gained a little fame herself, before she sold her interest to her partner, Gus Andres.

It is Andres who befriends the nearly destitute Bobby and puts him on course to meet Alice, who is in her 60s, no longer married and not altogether happy with life’s turn of events.

After a crisply written prologue built around a jarring 1929 event in Alice’s childhood, White moves the novel into the 1970s and ’80s in a series of first-person sections. Initially these are from Bobby’s perspective, including his distress as a homosexual teenager in a deeply religious Southern home. Later, a third character, Amelia Brighton, takes over the first-person narrative and adds a new dimension to Alice’s history.

White’s third novel is a pleasure, and some may find that Amelia’s story adds a necessary jolt of suspense and catharsis to the mix. But it’s a tricky ingredient in an otherwise well-made tale.

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