SEPTEMBER 4, 2019
THE US EDITION of Supper Club sports a still life on its cover: a table heaped high with opalescent grapes, seedy melons oozing juice, erotically dimpled oranges, a lasciviously dangling strawberry, and a slender glass of pale wine. It recalls the UK edition of the much-discussed Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, whose cover is also a still life of fruit, featuring more than one cheeky peach, winking at the associations of its emoji counterpart. Both books are about women, and wanting, and flesh, and in their covers one cannot help but read a certain nod to John Berger and his adage, in Ways of Seeing, that the tradition of oil painting appeals to and importunes “the sense of touch,” aimed at a perceived “spectator-owner,” whether the subject matter be the skin of a nude woman or of a stone fruit: pussy laid out for the purveyor’s gaze or a table scattered with oozing oysters, languishing lobsters, jugs of dark wine, and glinting lemons. Oil painting is the ekphrasis of the living and the tangible, and it dramatizes man’s (yes, man’s) dominion over all.
To cloak two books about female desire in paintings from this tradition is to signal subversive intent. And indeed, Lara Williams’s debut novel concerns a secret society of women who want to “reclaim their appetites” — to nourish one another wildly and to excess, to see what happens when they do. The idea belongs to protagonist Roberta, who has been made to suffer a trifecta of damage: her father left when she was a child, she was raped at university, and then she embarked on a toxic relationship with one of her philosophy lecturers. She is a phenomenal cook and a recluse. We flit back and forth between her time as a student (a miserable series of disillusionments — “I thought I would spend my time drinking cheap red wine and talking about the Middle East. […] I thought there would be red cups at parties”) and the present, where her father has recently taken to sending her long, passive aggressive emails, signing off “Jim (Dad).”
After college, nearing 30 and working at a fashion website, Roberta meets sometime art student Stevie, whose hair is like “an animal folding in on itself to sleep.” The two strike up an intense friendship and move in together. It’s a dynamic reminiscent of Bobbi and Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, where days end winding pasta around a fork “between sips of white wine, while we talked about recently memorable incidents of street harassment and how much we hated men.” Afterward, they sleep in the same bed. The Supper Club is their joint venture. The idea is to take up space, be it by weight gain that makes “living art projects” of the club’s members, or by breaking and entering into new locales for the meals (a university building, the cosmetics floor of a department store), to seek “a slippery and elusive truth.” Stevie and Roberta interview each would-be member by asking them what they’re afraid of. The answer always has something to do with a cruelty meted out by men.
In the days leading up to each dinner, Roberta, Stevie, and one of their initiates, Erin, go dumpster-diving behind supermarkets and delis. They wash what they find in diluted bleach and vinegar, then compose menus from what they have, supplemented with huge cuts of T-bone steak (they have decided that red meat should be a prerequisite of each Supper Club). Meals include fish cakes, grilled potatoes with spiced salmon, roasted radishes topped with crumbled feta, cold noodle salad; for dessert a “strange sort of Eton mess, with chunks of torn doughnuts and smashed meringue covered in cream and sugar.” Roberta is struck by “the porousness of the world, its gaps and chinks. These meals that would never have existed, like secret passageways beneath the city.” Rooms are filled with the “wet smack of our mastication,” and food is eaten without cutlery. There are always drugs to finish.
The novel’s greatest strength are the passages that punctuate the shifts in time frame. Beginning with statements such as, “There are lots of different theories on how best to caramelize onions,” they read like the introductions to the recipes of a highly personable cookbook. “Sourdough begins with a starter, which is also known as a leaven, a chief, a head, a pre-ferment, or my favourite — a mother. […] Knead the dough until your wrists hurt. You’re doing a great job.” They feel addressed to an imagined novice, uninitiated into the restorative power of cooking and its labors. “Don’t believe vegetarians who tell you that meat has no flavour, that it comes from the spices or the marinade,” continues another. “The flavor is already there: earth and metal, salt and fat, blood.” What follows is a lengthy equivocation on the merits of various meats:
My favourite meat is chicken. I can eat a whole bird standing up in the kitchen, straight from the oven, burning my bare hands on its flesh. Anyone can roast a chicken, it is a good animal to cook. Lamb, on the other hand, is much harder to get right. You have to lock in the flavour, rubbing it with sea salt like are exfoliating your own drying skin, tenderly basting it in its own juices, hour after hour. You have to make small slits across the surface of the leg, through which you can insert sprigs of rosemary, or cloves of garlic, or both. These incisions should run against the grain, in the opposite direction to which the muscle fibers lie. You can tell the direction better when the meat is still uncooked, when it is marbled and raw. It is worth running your finger along those fibers, all the way from one end to the other. This doesn’t help with anything. It won’t change how you cook it. But it is good to come to terms with things as they are.
These passages have a delicious fuck-you carnality to them, but their self-assurance is at odds with the usually tongue-tied Roberta, and tonally discordant.
There are a lot of dud filler lines which could have been cut altogether. Take, for instance: “[T]here was a thick sense of anticipation in the air, a sense of the invisible membrane that separated us from our future selves.” Sometimes they barely make sense. When Roberta arrives with a friend to one particularly elaborate Supper Club break-in, she is “all nerves and thrill, like planning a midnight feast” — which is, of course, exactly what she is doing. Worn-out three-clause formulations that numb the inner ear abound: “[I]t was like emerging into the daylight after an afternoon trip to the cinema, leaving behind the mythical for reality, the feeling of being quietly but fundamentally changed”; “So I was used to the vagaries of loss, the spaces left behind, my dad’s absence apparent in the most peculiar ways.” Seen alongside lines such as these, the fine food writing takes on the aura of a set piece, and means that this novel doesn’t quite live up to its own promise.
This is a shame, because when I was in high school, every single girl I knew had a bad relationship with food. There were those who had dramatically visible eating disorders (the increasingly parenthetical thighs, the sunken cheeks and bras which gaped like clamshells with the tits that could not longer fill them), and these cases were doubly dangerous: not only to themselves, but because they hid all the more insidious cases. The girls who talked at length about their love of food, how they would need to go for a long run today because they ate a pack of cupcakes, who joked about binging and hating their bodies, who looked other girls up and down as if they wanted to devour them from the inside out. Food was a huge topic of conversation back then, so much so that I wonder why it isn’t a more prominent theme in literary fiction.
At university, it continued. There were several women in my first year who were prolific bakers, making one cake or tray of elaborate brownies every two days, only to push the sum total of their wares upon the rest of us when they were done making them. They would leave them in the communal kitchens with little notes: “help yourself! X,” “enjoy! X,” “free to all! X.” They were driven, intelligent women, studying medicine and history, but when we exchanged pleasantries they told me what they’d had to eat that day and how they would repent for it.
I think of these women often, how much they thought about food and denied themselves its pleasures. How much smaller that made them. How much bigger they could have been. I wonder, too, what they might have been like if they’d broken free: eaten the cake, gone for the run, made both parts of a roster of private joys. On behalf of them, I yearn for books about women sating their hungers. The formulation of waning female appetite = waning female libido, à la Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is overcooked now. I want their flip side: big books, with bite, that rejoice in the female body filling to its edges and the fullness of its potential. Lara Williams has certainly made a good start.
Stephanie Sy-Quia is a freelance critic and writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The FT Weekend Magazine, The Spectator, Monocle, The i, and others. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the FT Bodley Head essay prize. She is a Ledbury Emerging Poetry Critic.