Chez Tulips Stories and Recipes is an inspired set of short stories with accompanying delicious sounding recipes set in and around a fictional restaurant in the US state of Minnesota in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul.
Sandra Rector’s characterisations are her strength and reading her bio I can see that she has drawn on her first-hand experience from living and working in the restaurant business. The characters in her stories are ordinary folk, who for one reason or another ended up waiting tables or cleaning grease traps. Illegal immigrants, guys who’ve been in and out of prison, addicts, the mentally ill, or those who were too poor to get a decent education: this is the reality behind the scenes in the restaurant business and it is these sorts of people that populate Rector’s story world.
The first story, Bugged is a magic-realist comedy where a woman who has an affair with her brother-in-law after her husband dies is consumed by guilt as she imagines being spied upon by an all-knowing spider. This story isn’t as strong as the others and as it’s the first in the collection it really does need to be as a reader might get the wrong impression that the writer doesn’t know her craft as it starts with exposition – telling us rather than showing us the two brothers both in love with Elizabeth. A short story has to get right on with the story and doesn’t have time for exposition and for me the story began at: ‘One drizzly, gray spring day, when the yellow daffodils and purple hyacinths had begun to bloom…’ If you really need that exposition just weave it in to the rest of the story on a ‘need to know’ basis.
The two strongest stories for me were Cremains and Mother’s Day, both of which feature Blossom the waitress. In Cremains, Blossom learns forgiveness, despite the behaviour of her errant husband, a man she never really knew. In the second, Mother’s Day, Blossom, like many a mother, believes that her adult son no longer loves her. She’s relieved that she won’t have to spend Mother’s Day at home alone, hoping in vain that her son will call her, as she’s rostered to work at Chez Tulips that day. There she observes another son who appears to detest his mother but has forced himself to take her out because that’s what’s expected of him. Although it starts off as a rather sad story of love and loss, there’s an unexpected twist at the end and Blossom emerges from her experience with a deeper understanding of human nature.
The last recipe – the diet-busting Crème Brulee French Toast ought to come with a government health warning – with ingredients including corn syrup, half cream – half milk and five eggs and French bread – a concoction not dissimilar to that British staple – bread and butter pudding.
Although I read this for review as part of a non-reciprocal reviewing group, I was immediately drawn in by these stories as they are not only inhabited by well-researched characters but because of the ability of the writer to weave original stories with surprising twists and turns.