Foodies take note: Erica Bauermeister is back with a sequel to "The School of Essential Ingredients," her best-selling 2009 debut novel that provided a buffet of stories about friendship, love and finding oneself - all set in the gourmet kitchen of a cozy neighborhood restaurant.
Now the Seattle author has written "The Lost Art of Mixing." In this book she checks back in with her central character, Lillian the restaurateur, who (spoiler alert!) now is pregnant by Tom, who had been a student at her cooking class in the last book.
Bauermeister also brings to the fore the personal journeys of Al the accountant and his wife Louise, Finnegan the dishwasher, Chloe the sous chef, and Chloe's aged roommate, Isabelle.
This is billed as contemporary fiction, but I would peg it as women's fiction, through and through.
The settings are domestic - the fragrant kitchen, the charming beach cottage, the picturesque farmers' market.
And most of these tales orbit around love - lost, found, rejected, secured. There are beginnings and there are denouements.
One modest deviation from romance is the growing impact of Alzheimer's disease on Isabelle's ability to function and how her kids react to her plight.
Bauermeister blends and sifts story elements and characters. These are ordinary lives, but sometimes the simplest of things have resonance - the soul-cleansing act of cleaning the kitchen or chopping wood, the comfort in a cup of tea or an air-dry haircut.
The author finds plenty to empathize with and to celebrate. Indeed, she leavens this book with quirky rituals, and there are offbeat flecks of insider humor that provide additional zest.
On the other hand, while some of the characters experience discontent, there isn't much in the way of conflict. Bauermeister sidesteps one obvious opportunity for confrontation when a major communications breakdown between Lillian and Tom yields no apparent sparks. Another scene with Louise positively crackles with incandescent anger - but this, too, is one-sided.
Bauermeister devotes a lot of space to the various characters' backstories. I found myself wondering if some of this material originally had been intended simply as background for the book and ended up being thrown in as filler. It is richly detailed stuff, but it tends to slow down the momentum of the story. The back-and-forth jumps in the timeline, coupled with the focus on different characters in each chapter, can be disorienting.
Sensually swirling around all of these stories are the marvelous aromas wafting from Lillian's kitchen: of marinated eggplant sandwiches, braised endive, blackened-salmon salad, fresh focaccia, cod chowder, orange gelato and sugared strawberries. Bauermeister provides ecstatic descriptions that will make your imagination go into sensory overdrive - textures, appearances and, of course, tastes. Even so, there are fewer food and recipe references here than in "The School of Essential Ingredients," so some Bauermeister fans may be disappointed.
"The Lost Art of Mixing" is a respectable follow-up to "The School of Essential Ingredients," but I'm sorry to say it doesn't quite equate to the literary equivalent of dessert.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org