“Island Apart” by Steven Raichlen. Forge Books. 288 pp., $24.99.
Talk about leaving your comfort zone.
Chappaquiddick resident Steven Raichlen has a best-selling name as a journalist, PBS cooking show “Primal Grill” host, and as the author of 29 cookbooks. The peripatetic Mr. Raichlen trained in Paris in the classical tradition at Cordon Bleu and La Varenne and has become the ne plus ultra of barbecue cooking.
Now comes “Island Apart,” his first novel, which will show fans and foodies that Mr. Raichlen understands the human condition as well as he knows the palate. Cookbooks to novels? Put down the tongs and move away from the firepit while we tell you that Mr. Raichlen also won a Fulbright to study comparative lit.
Authors are forever admonished to write what they know. Mr. Raichlen did. He knows most every edible leaf, stalk, berry, and finny form on the land and in the waters of the island-off-the-Island. And he knows Chappy’s people enjoy their hermetic solitude.
No wonder, then, that this story stars the Hermit, a solitary, silent Chappy figure who finds Claire Doheny in a chilly off-season heap on a Chappy dirt road. Ms. Doheny is a successful New York book editor who’s using her BFF’s seasonal Chappy home to recuperate from a serious illness.
Unfortunately, she’s not aware of her initial Hermit meeting because she’s out cold after spilling off her bike on a rutted Chappy dirt road. (Did I mention that Mr. Raichlen knows Chappy?) He carries her to the ferry wrapped in his jacket and the Edgartown cops take her to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. He disappears, she recuperates, learns approximately where he lives, and leaves him a thank-you note, his cleaned-up jacket, and a loaf of cranberry bread.
He reciprocates with a loaf of hazelnut bread, sans note. She whips up a preserve and a Thanksgiving dinner invite in response. He’s a no-show, but Claire is persistent. She understands off-center personalities — she deals with authors all day long — and slowly their Island-grown food gifts to each other bring a face-to-face connection and they begin to unwind their stories to each other.
Mr. Raichlen displays his understanding of food and its power to bring emotional healing, relationship growth, and joy to us. Food becomes a character in this novel. The protagonists haven’t met, yet they learn about each other from the ingredients and the food they prepare. And the Hermit prepares his dishes using ingredients native to Chappy. Who knew you could make flour from Chappy flora?
“Island Apart” is a real story, not a gilded fable. We all know that life has some bad roads and they are evident here, but Mr. Raichlen also has fun with many of his characters, including several hilarious sendups of Claire’s rebellious teenage daughter who appears with hair of many hues, towing a series of scruffy, monosyllabic boyfriends.
Claire’s friends, Sheila and Elliott Feinblat, are successful New Yorkers who own the $4 million “cottage” on North Neck Road where Claire is staying. Sheila, from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Claire, raised in South Boston, became best buds at Columbia and it stuck. Sheila is a nosy and committed advocate for Claire and Elliott doesn’t whimper as guests imbibe his world class wine collection like Gatorade.
Then there’s Ely Samuelson, author of the definitive life of real-life scientist and psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, a manuscript Claire is editing for her publishing company. Through the wacky Samuelson, Reich also becomes a minor character in “Island Apart,” giving us food for thought about Reich’s work on the beneficence of bioenergy on our emotional, sexual, and physical health.
Mr. Raichlen has worked up an ambitious plot line here, layered with the real-life personalities, problems, and joys we all recognize. He’s also given character status to food and to a dead shrink. And pulled it off. A successful debut.
A bonus for the reader is the information about edible native plants and animals, with recipes that are seamlessly woven into the story. Consider keeping a pen and paper handy as you read: you’ll get some ideas.
Mr. Raichlen knows his turf and there are plenty of knowing references to authentic Island people, places, and organizations. One of the world’s top foodies is also just a guy who lives on Chappy, it turns out.