Alicia Bessette's debut marries a big social issue with an intimate story of mourning. From the opening page there's a sad edge to the humor found in Zell's narration that neatly highlights both the setting (a wintery Massachusetts's town) and the tenuous bonds between characters that once felt united forever. The relationship between Zell and Ingrid gives the story its best, most emotionally profound moments -- moreso than the romantic moments between Zell and Ingrid's determined but struggling single-dad. I assume Bessette understands that a novel about recovering from the loss of a husband one loves completely would be made trite by a storyline that revolved solely around a love interest. More importantly, though, this is not a book about one connection but many connections -- from the bonds of local townspeople to the unexpected links between people brought together through tragedies big (Katrina) and small (the death of a husband that everyone loved).
I read this book in just two sittings, propelled forward by the voice and curiosity as to how things would work out (hoping it would not be a neat, overly sweet finish -- the kind I'm usually not satisfied by when there's a major social crisis involved). As it turns out, I was not disappointed, because Simply From Scratch, despite all the things fiction can 'get away' with, does not pretend to be about a perfect world with perfect people; instead it's a book with the invisible, difficult to vanquish villains of pain and loss. Ultimately, the Katrina backstory involving Zell's husband (whose death is directly related to his time in New Orleans) fits perfectly in terms of tone -- the details of the Katrina aftermath stand on their own and also work as a metaphor for Zell's own life disaster -- how she will have to save what she can from the rubble.
While this can be a difficult line to walk, Bessette doesn't leave the reader thinking that Katrina is a convenient contemporary issue that serves her characters. She avoids insulting the survivors of that real tragedy by celebrating survival and community in both storylines. It's a compelling use of the real life moment. In fact, I think the author would be more than capable of delving into Katrina more directly in a future book.