I loved this book.
(Be warned: there are spoilers below, so stop reading now if you don't want to know how it ends.)
I first "met" Tanita S. Davis via her YA lit/writing blog, Finding Wonderland, and through Poetry Friday posts. And though I knew she had a YA novel out (and another one on the way), as usual I was behind on that tower of books stacked by the bed. I recently settled in with this one, and was delighted that I did.
Seventeen-year-old Lainey's life isn't particularly exciting -- she lives with her mom, goes to school, and often hangs out and does her homework at the restaurant where her mom is a chef and co-owner. Lainey's hero is Julia Child, whom she calls "St. Julia" and Lainey dreams of having her own cooking show someday. Occasionally, she even gets to use her mother's restaurant as a test kitchen.
Descriptive passages detailing the colors and flavors, the smells and sounds of a kitchen (both commercial and at home) as well as the many recipes sprinkled throughout the book made me hungry and eager to try some of Lainey's creations.
But what I really loved was the relationships.
Lainey and Sim have been friends for years, and Lainey actually has a huge crush on her cute buddy. But lately Sim has been headed down a new path, taking some wrong turns. Lainey's not entirely sure what's going on with him, but as Sim's actions and choices unfold -- for us and for Lainey -- we see Lainey alternately thrilled and angry, happy to be needed but resentful of being used, and pulled in but pondering the possibility of pulling away.
What I really loved was the honesty, and Lainey's honest, youthful confusion. We can see that Lainey is strongly attracted to Sim, but she's ultimately smart enough not to cave in to that attraction. By the time Sim kisses her, it feels to us like more manipulation from Sim, who is trying to keep a good thing available to him. Lainey honestly acknowledges the "wow" of the kiss, but is able to see beyond it. She comes to see that Sim doesn't really value her as a complete human being. He has used her when she was convenient, and she faces that truth with sad but open eyes.
It's with some residual affection, but ultimately with raw honesty and courage that Lainey knows she must say good-bye to Sim for good.
The ending includes a subtly heartbreaking memory about a gingerbread house, so carefully crafted (both the gingerbread house and the narrative) that it brought me to tears.
That memory, though heartbreaking, is also hopeful, as Lainey looks to her future -- it's a future without Sim, and that is okay, she finally sees. He was never really what she wanted him to be anyway, no matter how strong her feelings felt, no matter how much she wanted him to be what she had imagined he was, or could be.
And that is a message our young girls need to hear (although the book doesn't come across as a "message" piece.) In this way, A la Carte is a bit of an anti-Twilight, offering the perspective that no matter how cute the bad boy is, no matter how powerful the attraction feels, there are other things to consider ....
like the rest of your life, and what you want that life to be.