Pay attention and you’ll notice something. It’s a phrase, often used in book descriptions or back cover copy: “But When.” It sounds simple enough but it changes everything. “But when an old friend comes to visit…” Or, “But when her son goes missing…” That single phrase is the beginning of everything going wrong for a character (and, let’s face it, when things really interesting for the reader). When we began to pay attention to this phrase we thought it was time to begin a new series. So we have invited Elizabeth LaBan to share a bit about her new novel, THE RESTAURANT CRITIC’S WIFE in this latest installment of “But When.” Enjoy!
I thought I had a definite “but when” moment in mind for THE RESTAURANT CRITIC’S WIFE. Lila and Sam are living in New Orleans with their young daughter Hazel. Everything is going along without much complaint. Sam is working at the newspaper. Lila is dealing with being a new mom, but has the luxury of a trustworthy babysitter and continues to work for the local Addison Hotel. All is seemingly well, but when Sam announces that he has gotten a new job in a city far away things begin to change.
He has been offered the position of restaurant critic at the Philadelphia Record. It is his dream job. Great, right? Maybe, if you’re Sam. If you’re Lila, you’re whole world is about to be turned upside down because now is the only chance Sam will get to remain completely unknown to the restaurant community. He wants to blend in, and have the same dining experience everyone has. He does not want to give restaurants the chance to give him special treatment, or to cook and recook dishes to try to make them perfect. It means he would prefer Lila not work after they move because she has a talent for drawing attention to herself. It means that making friends will be almost impossible since Sam is afraid all new people might somehow be connected to a restaurant, and potentially expose him. Better to stay away from pretty much everyone. All of this leads Lila to question her marriage and her choices, struggle to find happiness, and work to make sure she doesn’t lose herself completely in the process. That is definitely the moment when the story begins. Or is it?
As I think about it, the true “but when” moment occurred long before that. It happened on that gray, foggy morning in New Orleans when Lila was there on business, feeling down and missing her ex-boyfriend. That day she did something unusual, she left the hotel. She found herself at a small cafe on Magazine Street where she saw a strange man wearing a mask and cape, five steaming bowls of gumbo in front of him. She almost walked out, but when she decided to stay her entire life changed. Lila says it best at the beginning of the book. She and Sam are out for a review meal with her mother and her mother’s friend. Sam isn’t paying any attention to them, he’s too busy scrutinizing the restaurant. The mood at the table is tense. Lila’s mother is telling a story she has told many times before, about her initial encounter with the man who would become her husband. For the first time, Lila really hears it. “A simple detail like deciding which stranger to ask to dance or, in my case, deciding where to eat in a strange city, can change your whole life.” Taking a seat at that gumbo shop set it all in motion.
“Get the duck,” the masked man said, his voice much younger and warmer than I expected. “It’s delicious.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. Who did he think he was, the Phantom of the Opera? I didn’t realize at the time that there were Mardi Gras parades that day and I would see other people in costume. I was afraid to take his advice, and afraid not to take it.
“I’ll try the duck gumbo, please,” I said after the man went back to his bowls. It arrived steaming hot, I ate it, and as promised, it was delicious.
Lila Soto has a master’s degree that’s gathering dust, a work-obsessed husband, two kids, and lots of questions about how exactly she ended up here.
In their new city of Philadelphia, Lila’s husband, Sam, takes his job as a restaurant critic a little too seriously. To protect his professional credibility, he’s determined to remain anonymous. Soon his preoccupation with anonymity takes over their lives as he tries to limit the family’s contact with anyone who might have ties to the foodie world. Meanwhile, Lila craves adult conversation and some relief from the constraints of her homemaker role. With her patience wearing thin, she begins to question everything: her decision to get pregnant again, her break from her career, her marriage—even if leaving her ex-boyfriend was the right thing to do. As Sam becomes more and more fixated on keeping his identity secret, Lila begins to wonder if her own identity has completely disappeared—and what it will take to get it back.