Deborah McKinlay’s That Part Was True is a meta-fictive meditation upon the particularities of gendered genre fiction: this is, after all, a chick lit novel about a male protagonist who specializes in writing what characters repeatedly characterize as masculine fiction or “guy lit” in my terms. The American protagonist, Jackson Cooper, carries on an increasingly intimate correspondence with Eve Petworth, a wealthy British single mother in her forties. Though this epistolary exchange begins with Eve’s fan letter to Jack, what she praises about Jack’s fiction is his attention to verisimilitude, as demonstrated in a particularly evocative passage about a ripe, juicy peach. Gradually, Jack and Eve discover they share a love of cooking, and an appetite for refined comfort food, such as lavender scones and home-made marmalade. The evenness of their culinary skill makes it difficult to determine which of these characters is the object of desire, and which is the admirer—these subject positions vary and change throughout the length of the short novel. McKinlay succeeds in walking the line between chick and guy lit by virtue of presenting two evenly-matched protagonists whose friendship develops slowly and through a medium that is consciously antiquated, letter writing, which does not ignore more immediate communications, such as the telephone and e-mail, but persists in spite of them. The anticipation associated with awaiting the next letter, and its acknowledgement of what was said before gives each character something to look forward to in this increasingly chaotic world of instant communication.
The more sustained pleasure of reading this novel, thus, comes from reading the interspersed letters themselves as examples of what I am calling “narrative food porn”. Like erotic pornography, food pornography is meant to excite the senses, and ignite the passions of its intended audience. Both types of porn thrive in visual and narrative realms of expression, since each medium gives fodder to fantasy, a necessary element of the true pleasure of the porn consumer. Whereas the visual element of food porn has proliferated—what with the rise of professional food stylists and the viral nature of Instagram, Yelp, and Urban Spoon, all of which facilitate the easy uploading and distribution of digital photographs of incredibly appetizing food offerings—real gastronomes have long known the joy of curling up in bed with a good book, and calling upon James Beard’s “taste memory” (Delights and Prejudices 1) to make vivid descriptions of featured dishes come alive to one’s senses.
Eve and Jack’s first missive begins, rather biblically, with the woman offering up an especially juicy morsel: her explanation of why the peach-eating passage in his novel was so enticing to her as an embodied reader.
The scene where Harry Gordon eats the peach (‘leaning over and holding back his green silk tie with one arm while the juice christened the shirt cuff of the other’) introduced a moment of summer into a watery English day. And it reminded me, as well, of the almost decadent pleasure that comes with eating fully matured fruit—sadly, a rarity. (That Part Was True 1)
This marks a moment of intimate self-disclosure for Eve: not only is she revealing to a successful author what it is about his testosterone-fueled action adventure tales that caught her attention—the seemingly unguarded moment when the rugged protagonist gives himself over to the temptation of gustatory pleasure—but she is also revealing something about her own desire for raw, unmediated flavors. By noting how hard these moments of unadulterated sensual pleasure are to come by nowadays, Eve also sets the stage for a consciously retro epistolary exchange.
Jack responds in kind. Not only does he answer this piece of fan mail, but he finds himself shifting the focus of the conversation away from his fiction—the popularity of which gave rise to this particular interaction—and more towards finding out about Eve’s life, especially once he finds out they both enjoy spending time in the kitchen. Seeking to dispel Eve’s preconceptions of him as indistinguishable from his public persona, Jack presents himself to his correspondent as a better cook than he is a writer:
I am better at cooking than I am at most anything else. At writing I can cross the finish line well enough, but not in any particular style. And with people, I have a tendency to trip at the first hurdle. (That Part Was True 56)
Thus framed, their correspondence begins in earnest. For, as talented as Jack and Eve appear to be in the kitchen, none of their close friends or relatives fully shares their enthusiasm for good food. In fact, their interlocutors often misinterpret the significance of their culinary endeavors, assuming they merely substitute for real engagement with others, or serve as a convenient way to pass the time while others engage in “real” work.
The novel adds an extra layer of faux-reality when it includes actual recipes at the end of the book for two of the dishes the protagonists recall most fondly, and which they share with one another during their correspondence: from Jack, “Granny Cooper’s Peanut Cookies” (That Part Was True 226) and “Grandmother’s Christmas Cake” (That Part Was True 227) from Eve. As in most fiction, grandmothers in this novel are almost magically imbued with culinary wisdom and lore. Ironically, by the novel’s ending, it is clear that Eve’s on her way to becoming a grandmother herself, thereby prompting the reader to go back through the correspondence and attempt to reconstruct the recipes she only half-hints at throughout.
There’s an implied double entendre embedded within Jack’s recipe—his movie star best friend wants to learn how to do to women what Jack does to get the roasted peanuts to taste so good. American readers who want to follow Eve’s recipe, however, will come face to face with a dilemma that she spares Jack from suffering, as she sends him not only the recipe but also a bottle of one of the key ingredients, golden syrup or light treacle, that gives the dish its signature flavor. She warns,
I have just noticed that the recipe calls for Golden Syrup. I may have to send you some, substitutes are either messy (combine caramelized sugar, vinegar, corn syrup) or inadequate (honey). (That Part Was True 139)
However, since this recipe is basically for fruit cake—one of the confections Americans find most puzzling—chances are no one will try their hand at making this particular cake. Good thing, too, since this book is probably best enjoyed beach- or pool-side, while food cooks out on the grill. It is sure to make readers hungry.
McKinlay, Deborah. That Part Was True. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014.
Beard, James. Delights and Prejudices. 1964. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Running Press, 2001.