Steven Raichlen has won five James Beard awards for his cookbooks. He defeated Iron Chef Rokusaburo Michiba in a "Battle of the Barbecue Gods" on Japanese television. He hosts two shows on PBS, as well as the French language TV show Le Maitre du Grill. Twenty-nine books under his belt, pinballing dramatically between barbecue cookery and the joys of vegetarianism, and now, his 30th: Island Apart is his first novel.
It's not precisely what one would guess a cookbook author and cooking instructor would write about in a first novel. Post-mastectomy, book editor Claire Doheney decides to convalesce on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha's Vineyard. In our collective consciousness more "incident" than island, this low-key Massachusetts old-money seaside playground is clearly beloved by Raichlen. (He lives there with his wife half the year, spending the other half in Coconut Grove.) It functions as setting, yes, but also as briny, brambly character and as the chief catalyst for the book's central relationship.
While editing a biography of the iconoclastic psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich and nursing her wounds both physical and psychic, Claire becomes intrigued by an unkempt oddball the locals call the Hermit. As she stirs delicious things over the eight-burner Wolfe range in her borrowed oceanfront mansion, the Hermit hunts and gathers, making mind-boggling use of local lobster and Rhode Island johnnycakes in a kitchen with no electricity or plumbing. True to his nickname, the Hermit is conversationally monosyllabic and temperamentally standoffish. As a tentative friendship deepens into something more, the couple communicates through food.
Raichlen was not unflaggingly well served by his editor (a few spelling errors and occasional jarring use of first person are lesser missteps than the book's overexuberance in recounting Reich's kooky scientific theories), but the love story doesn't suffer. Each painstakingly constructed meal in Island Apart serves to pull the Hermit from his isolation, to reify John Donne's meditation that in fact "No man is an island/ Entire of itself/ Each is a piece of the continent."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.