School of Essential Ingredients reminded me of How to Make an American Quilt (and the Jane Austen Book Club, too). The book uses the premise of a cooking class, just as the latter used a quilting group, to explore the lives of several characters and how their interaction with each other grows as their lives intersect within the confines of a weekly Monday night cooking class they attend in the Pacific Northwest.
Lillian owns a restaurant in a converted home where she gives cooking classes each Monday evening, when her business is closed. Readers learn about how she learned to cook--because her mother neglected to do so after Lillian's father left them. Lillian's mother lost herself in books and Lillian tried rescuing her by learning to cook, which she does by hanging out in her friend's kitchens with their mothers instead of playing dolls or hide and seek. At the beginning of each class segment, which lasts a season or two, Lillian looks forward to what she'll learn about her student's personalities from how they work in the kitchen, yet none of this insight was shared with the reader, which was disappointing, because that's sort of what I thought the author, or Lillian intimated to me/the reader.
Eight students enroll in Lillian's class this season and each chapter roughly chronicles a week or so in each of their lives as they work through Lillian's curriculum and grow in confidence in her kitchen and in their lives. Claire is a stay-at-home mother of two who was given the class as a gift of time away from family obligations for herself. That chapter is possibly the weakest and least interesting within the book, but it did not have to be. It's not that being a stay-at-home mother is boring, but perhaps the author's handling of it. The other characters are charming, developed, and about as complex as they can be in such a short book.
That said, I have quite mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, the author's descriptions of food preparation is quite sensual and evocative and stirring. Yet, on the other hand, in general, the vignettes were thin and left me wanting, like when you're at the hospital and your meals are ordered clear liquids only; broths and jellos. I yearned for something meatier. It's generally a delightful book, really; a quick read. Most culinary-inclined reader will enjoy this novel. I wanted more depth. More psychological insight. Just a lot more from the stories and interactions between characters. I felt the book was entirely too short. It was a great start. I believe it is the author's first work of fiction.