Cooking up secrets

Updated: Mar 28

Oftentimes, suburbia doesn’t spark excitement, but Karma Brown’s top-notch writing in Recipe for a Perfect Wife brings spice to a lifestyle that is usually anything but.

To onlookers, Nellie Murdoch has the perfect life. She has a husband who has a good job and loves her, her cooking and baking skills are unmatched in the neighborhood, and her garden puts everyone else’s to shame. She has everything a good wife aspires to have in 1955, besides a child to care for. However, inside the Murdoch household, life is anything but perfect. Nellie’s husband regularly comes home from work late, and a stranger’s perfume has started to come home with him. Luckily, she has her kitchen and garden to keep her occupied. Keeping up obligatory neighborhood appearances with a smile also keeps her busy but is only one trick that Nellie has up her sleeve. She’ll be damned if anyone discovers the others.

Fast forward to 2018, and Alice Hale actually had her perfect life: a doting husband, a job she loved, and an apartment in a place she adored, New York City. She’s recently departed from that beloved career, and her husband sees it as an opportunity to move into his dream house, or at least it will be after they fix it up. With no real ties to the city, Alice reluctantly agrees, and her perfect life abruptly ends. She soon finds herself in an eerily quiet house with decades old appliances and nothing to keep herself occupied; save for the book she promised her husband she’d write, but has yet to start. In Alice’s efforts to keep busy, she begins cleaning the basement and stumbles upon one of Nellie’s old cookbooks and stacks of women’s magazines from the era. Finally inspired for her book, she becomes fascinated with the 1950s and Nellie’s very own life, as well as the secrets she once kept. Realizing that she and Nellie are more similar than what meets the eye, Alice soon begins keeping secrets of her own.

Lately, historical fiction has been my go-to genre, and I especially like when stories flash between two different time periods with some sort of common denominator to connect them. Karma Brown does an excellent job of this in Recipe for a Perfect Wife, having one 1950s chapter for every two 2018 chapters, the connecting factor being Nellie’s cookbook, and more broadly, her life.

Fans of cooking and mystery will hold a special place in their hearts for Nellie. There are several recipes throughout the book preceding Nellie’s chapters, taken from actual cookbooks of the era, and we find Nellie making these recipes in the story. Personally, I’m not much of a cook, but I enjoyed the integration of the recipes in the story. Each recipe felt like a jigsaw piece and Nellie’s cooking scenes completed the puzzle.

The mystery comes from Karma Brown’s excellent use of foreshadowing. She is an excellent author and doesn’t confirm any of my suspicions until later in the story, truly creating a book I couldn’t put down.

With that being said, Alice’s chapters are nothing to sniff at. Brown uses Alice’s story to show how even though she lives almost six decades in the future, her life is still remarkably similar to Nellie’s. In Nellie’s world, society is very much patriarchal. More specifically, it’s rare for a woman to have a career outside of motherhood. In fact, if a woman isn’t married and bearing children by a certain age, she’s looked down upon, called “an old maid.” While modern society isn’t as harsh on women’s choices, the patriarchy is still very much alive, it’s just more subtle than it was 60 years ago. Brown does an outstanding job of capturing this subtlety using Alice’s interactions with the people around her and with the woman she’s learning from via a cookbook.

Recipe for a Perfect Wife is perfect for anyone who’s a fan of empowered women and enjoys a dash of secrecy for some added flavor.

Casey Larsen is an avid reader, but if you ask her what her favorite book is, you will likely get a different answer every time. She currently works part time in human resources and is pursuing a degree in English with a concentration in Literature. She hopes to one day work at a publishing house, helping future writers fulfill their dreams of becoming published authors. Between working and studying, she loves spending time with her friends, binging Netflix, and cuddling with her black lab puppy, Loki.

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