Beth Harbison’s When in Doubt, Add Butter is one of those fluffy books that readers might enjoy if they try not to think too hard about the story. It’s a typical chick lit tale focusing on a woman in her late thirties whose dilemmas focus on love and reproduction. The writing is humorous and readable, and Gemma Craig, the main character who is a personal chef, is generally likeable, even if a bit of a doormat-in-the-making. I enjoyed the descriptions of the food Gemma makes, and I wish the author had shared some of the recipes with readers. The book also contains several great lines, including the opening paragraph:
When I was twelve, a fortune-teller at the Herbert Hoover Junior High School carnival said to me: “Gemma Craig, you listen to me. Do not get married. Ever. If you do, you’ll end up cooking for a man who’d rather eat at McDonald’s; doing laundry for a man who sweats like a rabid pig, then criticizes you for not turning his T-shirts right side out; and cleaning the bathroom floor after a man whose aim is so bad, he can’t hit a hole the size of a watermelon—” This man sounded disgusting.
This opening led me to believe that this novel would provide mildly thoughtful commentary on the institution of marriage, and if not, I thought it would at least turn out to be an interesting, well-crafted story. I was wrong. This novel turned out to be fluff with an extremely weak plot.
If you are interested in a light read for the beach with a happy ending, this might be a good book for you. You may want to stop reading this review now, so as not to encounter any spoilers, which I have attempted to keep to a minimum.
If you are interested in knowing what I thought were this novel’s faults, read on:
(1) Too many coincidences = cheating
What Harbison through her characters calls “fate,” I call cheating. A year ago, Pixar Story Artist Emma Coates tweeted Pixar’s rules for writing good stories, including, “#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” I couldn’t agree more. If a coincidence solves a major conflict in the story, then the audience is cheated out of seeing the characters actually grapple with the obstacles before them. Harbison cheated the readers out of seeing Gemma deal with the repercussions stemming from the two mysteries/central issues in her life. When the coincidence at the core of the book is revealed, Gemma thinks, “It was too much—too coincidental to be true.” Indeed.
(2) Weak conflict
I would be okay with coincidences resolving a portion of the plot if the remainder of the plot is strong. That isn’t the case here. After the coincidence that essentially solves the conflict of the story is revealed approximately 67% of the way through, according to my Kindle, a very weak dilemma fuels the remaining third of the novel. Without explicitly giving it away, I can only say that I do not understand what ties Gemma to Washington, D.C. Her business is failing; she could be a personal chef anywhere.
(3) The novel downplays domestic violence
Gemma cooks for Cindy and Viktor, a couple in a tumultuous marriage. Gemma witnesses Viktor threaten his wife when, inches from his wife’s face, he says, “Make no mistake. I will see you dead before I will see you in divorce court.” Internally, Gemma laughs it off, saying, “Ah. True love.”
Some people cope with difficult situations through humor, and I imagine Gemma to be that type of person, but her later response to Cindy and Viktor’s reconciliation defies explanation. She says, making no reference to the threat she had witnessed previously, “That was the kind of thing Penny [her cousin] always told me marriage was really about. She said it was about the problems, and that what shows real love is not just kissing and laughing. It’s getting through the hardest times. Together.” Not only do Cindy and Viktor reconcile, which does often happen in real relationships for a variety of reasons (including empty promises to change), but Gemma’s commentary on their relationship makes it seem as though that type of abuse is part of normal relationships and what marriage is all about!
To the contrary, Viktor’s behavior toward his wife is most likely illegal where they live. If they lived in Pennsylvania, my home state, threatening to kill a family or household member violates the Protection from Abuse Act. See, e.g. R.G. v. T.D., 672 A.2d 341 (Pa. Super. 1996) (citing Counterman v. Shoemaker, 14 D. & C. 4th 217 (1992), where threats to kill, without attempted or actual physical violence, sustained a PFA order). I did not appreciate seeing domestic violence handled so dismissively in this novel.
(4) The novel is too optimistic (which may not be a problem for many readers)
Part of the drama revolves around a pregnancy, during which the pregnant woman feels sharp pains that send her to the emergency room, where she is diagnosed with an incompetent cervix (IC, also known as cervical insufficiency). It is not likely that the sharp pains would be related to cervical insufficiency, as the condition is defined as “recurrent painless dilation and spontaneous midtrimester birth, usually of a living fetus.”* Women with cervical insufficiency may have a handful of deceptively minor symptoms, such as pelvic pressure, vaginal discharge, and urinary frequency, but pain would not be a common symptom, not until labor begins (and even then it’s usually described as “relatively painless” in cases of IC).
The character leaves the emergency room feeling relieved, saying: “But the good news was that the doctor was going to be able to do a procedure to fix it. Everything was going to be fine…” Oh, how I wish that were true. If it were, then maybe some of the people we met while our twins were in the NICU would never have had to be there. The common treatment for IC is a cerclage—stitches in the cervix—that studies indicate may only have a “marginal benefit” for certain subgroups of women and otherwise has not been shown to improve outcomes.** Thankfully, it works for some women, but I would never be so optimistic as to say that cerclages “fix” the problem and that “everything will be fine.” I suppose the harsh reality of IC is outside the scope of chick lit; it would certainly ruin the “happy ending.”
In When in Doubt, Add Butter, Harbison attempts to make thought-provoking observations about life and love, but falls short in terms of believability. In one such sage observation, Gemma opines:
Recipes are certain. Use good ingredients, follow the directions, be sure your oven temperature is true and monitor your stove properly, and you are assured success. There are not many variables once you understand how cooking works. Life, on the other hand, is full of variables. Nothing is predictable.
Well, this book is predictable, with the only surprise being that Harbison took the easy way out by allowing coincidences to resolve the conflict. I did not expect an established author with an editor and the backing of a publishing house to circumvent the plot in such a way.
*Jack Ludmir & John Owen, Cervical Insufficiency, in Gabbe: Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies (6th Ed).
**John Owen & Melissa Mancuso, Cervical Cerclage for the Prevention of Preterm Birth, 39 Obstetrics & Gynecology Clinics 25 (Mar. 2012); see also, Sharyn Alden, Cervical Stitch Has Risks, Decreases Pre-term Births for Few Women (Apr. 18, 2012), available at http://www.cfah.org/hbns/archives/getDocument.cfm?documentID=22503