REVIEW: Dear Julia by Amy Bronwen Zemser

Finally!  I found my YA foodie book!  After reading A La Carte (meh) and High Dive (disqualified because it wasn’t really a foodie book), I have come to rest at Dear Julia by Amy Bronwen-Zemser.  And thank goodness!

As you’ve probably already guessed, I really enjoyed this book.  It wasn’t without its faults, of course, but I was able to overlook it and just enjoy.  Sixteen-year-old Elaine Hamilton is shy, reserved, and nearly invisible…and she is a cooking prodigy, thanks to her hero Julia Child.  Elaine has memorized every recipe of Julia’s and serves them up nightly to her busy mother, her stay-at-home dad, and her four younger brothers.  In the same town, Lucida Sans (yes, she changed her name to the font) is famous for trying to be famous…except that she doesn’t seem to excel at anything.  Throw in a handsome-but-jerky nemesis, a cross-dressing brother, and Julia Child herself….and the proverbial hilarity ensues.

I do want to say, for the record, that I loathe annotations.  That description above totally sucks.  I’m just sayin’…

Zemser really caught the essence of what it’s like to love cooking – her descriptions of Elaine’s single-mindedness and focus while creating a recipe are realistic, and I appreciated the approach that, while Elaine is passionate about food, there is also a calculated and practical nature about it.  Lastly, the dynamic of Elaine’s family is interesting and illustrates the point that meals are not created in a vacuum and pulling it all together is truly a family affair (or it should be anyway).

The descriptions of food are interesting; rather than going for fancy prose about the smells, textures, and sights, Zemser opted instead to let the dishes speak for themselves.  Because there is a focus on Julia Child’s recipes, there are lots of French names which, we all know, always makes a dish sound more delicious and fancy; you may not know exactly what Elaine is fixing but doesn’t Coquilles St. Jacques a la Parisienne in Scallop Shells sound wonderful?  There is a focus on the technique: while they are making the aforementioned dish, Elaine explains to her brothers “you want to be careful with those scallops, Chris[…]Simmering them for more than five minutes will result in a rubbery texture.”  Likewise, throughout the book, there are lots of descriptions about vegetables being julienned, duck stock being made into a reduction sauce, and desserts being flambéed.  Effectively, Zemser lets the technique become the drama, rather than flowery language.

The book isn’t perfect, of course.  The unrealistic happy ending is completely saccharine – really, it’s pretty bad.  But even Zemser seems to realize this in her wink-wink epilogue where there is a comment about happy endings.  So I chose to believe that the conclusion was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek with a aren’t-happy-endings-like-this-silly? mentality.  My other issue with the book was Elaine’s relationship with her mother.  It was just never really fleshed out and, even when Elaine’s mother was engaging in a heart-to-heart with Elaine, I still felt like she was a two-dimensional character.  Additionally, Elaine’s mother has some issues with her daughter’s cooking, namely that she fought hard for women’s liberation and now her daughter wants to engage in such a domestic practice.  With the advent of Food Network, celebrity chefs, and the numerous Julia Child biographies, I just don’t know how an educated woman could believe that anymore.  I found that unrealistic.

But these are quibbles.  Overall, it was an entertaining read – I finally found a decent foodie book for teens.  This could also be a good recommendation for parents and teens looking for a “clean read” – there is a brief kiss toward the end and no sex.  No violence.  No brand- or name-dropping.  No swearing.  I would even recommend it to kids as young as 10 or 11 who are more advanced readers.

Eat, drink, and hope that the food revolution is affecting teens as well.

More reviews:

Erin Cooks
Teens Read Too (it received a "Gold Star of Excellence")


Erin said...

Thanks so much for linking back to my review of this title! I enjoyed reading your take on the novel. I agree with you that it wasn't perfect, but in general it really was a fun & light read with creative cooking scenes.


Anali said...

Any book that has a character named after a font is automatically added to my to-read list.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book as well. The biggest problem for me was that Elaine's mother, big feminist that she supposedly is, was known as "Mrs. Hamilton" instead of going by her maiden name, or even a hyphenated name.
Shannon - Children's Library Assistant, Louisville KY

Ms. Yingling said...

Really couldn't get into this one. I disliked Elaine so much, and even Lucida grated on my nerves. I did like A la Carte, although you are right about the food not being as central as one might expect.