Atria/Emily Bestler Books; July 2013

Reviewed by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

The Mouse-Proof KitchenWhat do you when your baby is born less than perfect?

Writers are often advised not to begin query letters or book descriptions with a rhetorical question, but the above question lies at the very heart, and the reader’s experience of, Saira Shah’s provocative novel.

Anna and Tobias are Londoners, thrilled at the arrival of their first child, a daughter they name Freya. But joy almost immediately turns to dismay when they are told that Freya has been born with profound disabilities that did not show up in the battery of prenatal tests that Anna underwent; disabilities that will hamper Freya’s development physically, intellectually and emotionally, leaving her no more than a baby even as her body grows. Since Anna is a chef, the couple decide to stick to their original plan of moving to rural France so that Anna can set up a cooking school in their new home. But just as with the shock following Freya’s birth, nothing goes as planned. They were hoping for a mansion in Provence but instead are forced to settle for a dilapidated farmhouse in less-than-Provence, the kitchen of which is overrun with vermin, hence the book’s title. How will Anna and Tobias handle the challenges that accompany their new geographical situation? And how will they handle the even greater challenges in parenting a child who they know from Day One will never be anywhere close to all they dreamed she would be?

The answer to the latter, at least at the beginning of this read, is: not very well at all. But that, you see, is the amazing thing about this book.

I read The Mouse-Proof Kitchen in the second week of December 2013, long past the point when I’d become sure another book would win the award – such as it is – of My Best Book Read In 2013. When I began reading the book, I reacted to the opening chapters in much the way I imagine many other readers will: I was offended by much of Anna’s and Tobias’s dialogue, behaviors and decisions. In other words, I was very judgmental. I kept finding myself thinking: How can you say that? or How can you think such a thing? or How can you do that? But then something else happened, an epiphany of sorts: It occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I had faced many challenges in my life but not this specific one. My job as the reader was not to imagine some holier-than-thou universe in which I would behave so much better (which I might do, or I might behave so much worse; that’s the point, isn’t it – we don’t know, do we?). All I had to do was believe that these choices were necessary and believable for these characters in this situation.

If I’m giving the impression that the book is simply a problem novel, however, then I’m doing it a disservice. Ms. Shah has also created vivid main characters as well as sparkling supporting characters and the setting and plot, when taken together, is something akin to “A Year in Provence meets Chris Bohjalian.” And then, of course, for foodies there are all those dishes prepared and eaten. There’s gravitas, well-wrought descriptions and even a healthy saving dose of humor.

“…good books entertain, great books enlighten while entertaining, best books entertain and enlighten while increasing empathy through changing the way we see something in the world…”

A while back, there was an article in the New York Times about a study showing that people who read, in particular literary fiction, enhance their capacity for empathy. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the science behind the study but I will say this: good books entertain, great books enlighten while entertaining, best books entertain and enlighten while increasing empathy through changing the way we see something in the world, and this is why The Mouse-Proof Kitchen – which stopped me thinking about Wonderful Me, fun as that subject always is, instead making me ask, “What must that be like for you?” – became My Best Book Read In 2013.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of more than 30 books for adults, teens and children. Her most recent release is the paperback edition of The Twin’s Daughter, a Victorian suspense novel appropriate for both teens and adults. You can read more about her work at www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBaratzL.