"A Place at the Table: a Novel" (Touchstone), by Susan Rebecca White
There's a lot of tasty talk about food in "A Place at the Table," a novel whose main characters have an affinity for the kitchen, often a source of refuge when they hunger for lost family affections.
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 years earlier 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, a black woman 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 real-life luminaries in the culinary world 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, with a deft Southern touch, began turning out prix fixe feasts. She gained a little fame herself, publishing a cookbook, "Homegrown," before she tired of the routine in 1965 and sold her interest to her partner, Gus Andres.
It is Andres who befriends the near 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.
This is a fascinating pairing of a man and woman who bridged differences of race, age and sexual orientation, but White, an Atlanta-based writer, has more in store. Maybe too much.
After a crisply written prologue built around a jarring 1929 event in Alice's childhood, White moves the novel into the 1970s and 1980s in a series of first-person sections. Initially these are from Bobby's perspective, including his distress as a homosexual teenager in an intolerant, deeply religious Southern home. In the second half of the book, after Bobby finds a measure of solace at Cafe Andres and learns of Alice's role there, a third major character, Amelia Brighton, takes over the first-person narrative and adds a new dimension to Alice's history.
Amelia also adds an element of uncertainty on where this novel is heading. She is a well-to-do Connecticut mom in a troubled marriage, and warming up to her isn't as easy as it was with Bobby. Even when you do, connecting her to the ongoing story can seem a bit of a stretch.
But each character is a convincing creation, and the novel, White's third, is a pleasure if only for its rendering of Bobby and Alice and their convergence in Manhattan. 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.