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  • Written by Kay-Marie James
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  • Written by Kay-Marie James
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A Novel

Written by Kay-Marie JamesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Kay-Marie James

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On Sale: February 17, 2004
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-8073-1
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Harry became a fabulous cook. It began with a simple indulgence: secret bowls of buttery popcorn that he and his wife, Francie, would share after the children were tucked into bed. The aroma of melting butter, the hot kernels on their tongues, the salt crystals sticking to their lips—it was their own private romantic feast, imbuing their marriage with a new kind of passion. Soon, Harry began to dazzle Francie with luscious bisques and brioches, delectable soufflés, rich risottos, and classic versions of coq au vin that left her breathless.

Their family life came to revolve around the dinner table, where each night Harry’s cooking brought Francie and their four children together for an awe-inspiring and mouthwatering meal. But inevitably the years slip by, and when all but one child has left the house, Harry wins a digital scale in his company’s Holiday Raffle and their happy bubble bursts in a single instant. Harry’s cooking has finally caught up with him. His doctor confirms it: He desperately needs to lose weight.

Terrified of losing him, Francie puts Harry on a strict diet, leaving him eternally frustrated at the table and in the kitchen. When they both realize that he has to take a break from his culinary passions if this diet is to work, Francie begins to cook. Eventually a younger-looking, leaner, and more driven Harry emerges—one so newly committed to his job and his low-carb support group that not only is he no longer in the kitchen, he’s hardly ever at home. Feeling confused by the dynamics of their new relationship, Francie must contend with her need to keep Harry on his diet, and also with the women who have suddenly begun to eye her truly attractive husband. The question now becomes: Will love be enough to keep this marriage together, or will the Atkins Diet ultimately tear Harry and Francie apart?

Pop a pan of cookies into the oven and put up your feet. Cooking for Harry is a deliciously good time.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

I did not attend Harry's company's annual Holiday Raffle. Spouses and partners were never invited. Harry's company believed that restricting company-sanctioned gatherings to employees encouraged collegial bonding. This always seemed to me like a euphemism for extramarital affairs, though Harry assured me it wasn't.

"It's just dot-com nonsense, Francie," he said, pulling on his coat and patting the pockets for his keys. "Some business psychologist told them to do it, so they do."

He stood by the door, shifting from foot to foot, jingling his change. He always got nervous before he had to go to a party. "Too many adults walking around unattended," was how he explained it. But everybody in the company had to participate in the Holiday Raffle. You had to sign in with the office manager to prove that you'd been there.

Harry's company was so uptight I wasn't even allowed so say what it was he did, other than "computers." There was more and more talk of the company stock going public, but I wasn't supposed to say that, either. The company was an Internet spin-off of the staid and stodgy company where Harry had worked for nearly twenty years. At forty-three, he'd been the oldest employee to make the leap. Now, at forty-seven, he was the one the twenty-something dot-cowboys were referring to when they whispered, "It wouldn't hurt to have some white hair in on the deal." Enter Harry, familiar as a slice of Wonder Bread in his conservative tie, his wandering hairline, his solid mass of reassurance. The clients signed on the dot-com line. The cowboys high-fived one another over the tops of their cubicles.

"That's the only time they listen to me," Harry complained now, the change in his pockets jingling like sleigh bells. "When they think something might fall through. As soon as things are back on track, they hustle me out of the picture."

"Why? You've got more experience than any of them."

"That's the problem." More sleigh bells. "To them, anybody over thirty is ancient. They call me Father Time. And that's what they call me to my face."

"Say something," I urged him, even though I knew he wouldn't. Harry wasn't big on confronting people. Sure enough, even the possibility was making him uncomfortable. He turned to open the door.

"Ah, well. They're only kids." He winced at the blast of cold air. "Deep down, they love me, right?"

"They love your cookies, anyway."

"Cookies." The thought seemed to cheer him. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

I, for one, was talking about the actual, edible kind of cookie--known in company parlance as literal cookies--as opposed to the cyberspace cookies that they were all busily coding and decoding. On hump days--that is, Wednesdays--Harry always brought in four or five dozen literals and reheated them in batches in the office microwave. Many were his own inspired recipes: Helplessly Chocolate, Peppermint Power, Coconut Monkey Faces. The Peanutbetter Butterbursts, however, remained everybody's favorite, and the aroma never failed to lure the cowboys in from the flat-screened fields. They elbowed one another out of the way like the children they still were. They chewed with their mouths open. They tried to sneak handfuls back to their workstations, which had been forbidden ever since crumbs had gotten into a keyboard and made it go berserk. Harry liked to describe the scene in the voice-over tones of a nature documentary, even though he'd signed a confidentiality statement promising not to discuss anything that happened at work.

I tell you these things as a way of saying that it was no sacrifice to stay home from the Holiday Raffle, which always began with upbeat group exercises in cooperative thinking and mutual trust. Last year, the employees had to build some kind of scaffolding and help one another climb over it. Fortunately, Harry hadn't been quite to the top when the thing collapsed. Everybody had been very, very nice, he'd told me later, on the way to the emergency room. This year, rumor had it that employees were supposed to take turns standing on chairs and falling backward into one another's arms. Harry's waist was now a tight forty-two.

I just didn't want to think about it.

So as soon as his car pulled out of the driveway, I got to work decorating the house for the holidays. It was the first year we'd be relatively on our own. Tina and Trish were volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. Amber had flown to Jamaica with Malvin, declaring that December in Pittsburgh and suicide were synonymous. My mother, who had retired to Florida, begged off with the promise of attending Jason's high-school graduation in June, when the weather was civilized. At least Jason was still around, studying upstairs in his room, but who could say where he'd be next year? He was graduating at the top of his class, one year ahead of schedule. College recruiters had been calling nonstop; Cornell and Stanford had already offered scholarships. At seventeen, he'd be gone. It would be just Harry and me. There'd be time for hobbies. Weekend getaways. Maybe even those gym memberships. And on the horizon? Retirement. Travel. A couple of grandkids. An RV with one of those waving yellow signs in the window: caution: i'm spending my children's inheritance.

Frankly, it didn't sound half bad.

I polished the menorah from my daddy's side of the family and set it on the dining room table. I scattered foil-wrapped chocolate coins across the mantel for gelt, even though I knew that Harry would just eat them. Then I hauled the artificial Christmas tree down from the attic in honor of my mother's Baptist kin. I vacuumed away the cobwebs, untangled the various strings of lights, and fitted them with multicolored fish of no particular denomination. Finally, I dug out the enormous Christmas clock that Harry's parents had given Amber when she was just a year old. It's face was--what else?--Santa Claus's face, and every time the hour struck, an awful mechanized voice chortled, "Ho-Ho-Ho!" It overwhelmed my daddy's lovely old menorah like a condominium complex beside a turn-of-the-century Victorian. I hated the thing, but the kids had always adored it. To them, it was part of the holiday season, like spinning the dreidel, like eggnog and fruitcake.

I was studying the Christmas tree, debating the tinsel issue, when Jason came down the stairs.

"You put up the tree," he said reproachfully. "I would have helped, you know."

"I knew you were studying."

"I could have taken a break."

"Sorry, Pop-Tart."

Harry's old nickname for Jason had stuck, but Jason didn't seem to mind. Regardless of test scores, he would always be Pop-Tart to his family.

The Santa Claus clock chimed ten p.m. "Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho!" I watched Jason's head snap around. His mouth opened into a little round Ho! of his own beneath the wispy mustache he'd been trying to grow for a year.

"Aw, the Santa Claus clock!" he said, forgiving me everything. "I love that clock."

"I know."

"The tree needs tinsel, don't you think?"

"I was actually thinking of stringing popcorn instead."

"I'll make it," he said, heading for the kitchen. "Dad still out?"

"Yup."

"Isn't he late?"

"A little."

"Think he got hurt again?"

"I hope not."

Jason shook the heavy pan as the kernels rattled and popped. He had his father's way with popcorn; the smell was heavenly.

"Let's put butter on that batch," I said, digging through the junk drawer for the sewing kit. "We can always make more for stringing."

"Don't worry, I made plenty." Jason threw a whole stick of butter in a bowl and stuck it in the microwave. To look at him, you'd never have guessed that he came from a family that did not believe in margarine. He was so thin that it made me want to apologize. I suspected his accelerated brain was leeching necessary minerals from his body.

"I wonder if Dad'll win anything this year," he mused.

I'll say this for Harry's company: Their raffle prizes were extraordinary. Many were prototypes for things you still couldn't buy on the market.

"I could go for the flat-screened portable TV," I said.

Jason made a face. "I hope he wins the robo-dog."

"I hope he does not win the robo-dog!"

"Aw, Mom, you'd love it. I'd program it to get your slippers."

"I don't wear slippers."

"I'd program it to follow you around and keep you company."

Jason saved a small dish of popcorn for stringing, then shook the rest into the same bowl Harry and I had shared for so many years. He dumped the butter in with a splash and carried everything to the table. I handed him a needle, already threaded.

"The last thing I need," I said, stabbing a hot kernel, "is some little mechanical thing following me around. I spent too many years with little human things following me around."

Jason was more interested in eating popcorn than in stringing it. He filled his mouth with an impossibly large handful, then studied me, crunching. Since his babyhood, he'd looked somber, thoughtful, even when he was smiling, and he wasn't smiling now.

"What?" I said.

"You're going to be lonely," he said. "After I'm gone. So will Dad."

"You won't be gone, you'll be in college," I protested, though it was exactly what I'd been thinking earlier. Jason had a way of listening in on people's thoughts. You'd think to yourself, I'm kind of thirsty, and he'd appear with a glass of water. It was unnerving.

"You may experience mild to moderate depression," Jason said, adopting a formal tone. "You might start to question fundamental assumptions. Basic values could appear subjective."

"In other words, I'll be reaching for the Prozac?"

"Don't laugh," he said, shaking his head disapprovingly. "While it's true that professionals often dismiss the plight of the empty nester, the syndrome is a genuine phase-of-life transition with genuine consequences. It's best to be prepared."

I stared at my mathematically brilliant, hopelessly earnest son. In many ways, he seemed younger than seventeen. He was planning a career in quantitative psychology, which I gathered had something to do with creating statistical programs on computers to map the impulses of the human brain--after getting his M.D., of course. I imagined him in his high-school cafeteria with the athletes and the potheads, immune to their curiosity and scorn, quantum physics and pop psychology dancing like sugarplum fairies in his head. At six, seeing me unplug the vacuum with a yank of the cord, he explained why it was safer to grasp the plug, elaborating on the conductive nature of electricity. I could see that same six-year-old in him now, and I wanted to embrace him, but you don't do that to a teenage boy--even a boy like Jason, who prided himself on being free of what he called Oedipal angst.

"Around that same time," he continued soberly, "it is likely Dad will have a midlife crisis. Mom, don't laugh. It's hormonal. His testosterone levels will drop. There's nothing funny about it."

"I'm sure there isn't," I said, stringing popcorn madly.

"It may be happening already," Jason continued. "Have you noticed he's looking kind of, you know, puffy?"

"Puffy?"

Jason nodded. "That can be one of the signs. Hormones affect metabolism. Any idea how much he weighs these days?"

I shook my head. I thought I'd been the only one who'd noticed that, after years of slow creepage, Harry's weight had been rising exponentially. I'd been planning to say something to him about it, too, as soon as the holidays were out of the way. He always ate more around the holidays. He also ate more whenever he was bored, or unhappy, or nervous about something, or--especially--working long hours. Lately, since the dot-coms had been strafed by reality, he'd been putting in ten-hour days--all the surviving dot-cowboys did the same. But they were twenty years younger than Harry. Perhaps he was simply feeling his age. On weekends, he seemed to be sleeping more and more. Napping in the afternoon. Falling asleep on the couch after dinner. He was oddly . . . sluggish. Puffy, too. But it had been a particularly dark and dreary Fall. Everyone in Pittsburgh was sluggish and puffy.

"Maybe he's just been eating too much." I was still trying to keep things light.

"But the question is why?" Jason said. "For physiological reasons? Is he craving some vital fatty oil to regulate his amino acids? Or perhaps . . ."

"Perhaps what?"

"Perhaps he's been seeking emotional solace in food."

"Or perhaps he's just been eating too much," I repeated.

"People don't 'just eat too much.' " Jason fixed me with a paternal stare. "Are you and Dad, you know, okay?"

"Jason!" I didn't know whether to laugh or be offended. After twenty-four years, Harry and I weren't exactly honeymooners, but still. We enjoyed each other's company. We never fought. Sometimes we even held hands at the mall. "Of course we're okay."

"What about his job?"

They call me Father Time. "Jason, please, everything's fine."

"Maybe this involves latent childhood issues. In my opinion, Gramma Kligler was awfully overprotective, and Grampa--"

With relief, I heard Harry's car pull into the drive. "Hey, I think I hear the Hormonally Imbalanced One now."

Jason looked at me sympathetically. "Mom," he said. "Just remember I'm always here for you. I mean, if you ever want to talk."

"Thank you," I said, as soberly as I could.

"Don't mention it."

"Hello?" Harry shouted from the entryway, and not a moment too soon.

"What did we win?" I called back.

"Just a minute and I'll show you." We could hear him taking off his coat.

"The robo-dog?" Jason said, his voice cracking with excitement.

But when Harry padded into the room, he was carrying a flat, square box. Thankfully, he didn't look like a man who'd spent the past few hours falling backward off a chair.

"What's that?" Jason asked.

Harry handed it over. "Not the dog. Sorry, Pop-Tart."

"Can I open it?" he asked.

"Sure." Harry observed the tree. "Needs tinsel, don't you think?"

Jason was already inside the box. " 'The New You Digital Scale with Select Vocalizations,' " he read out loud. "Hey, a new scale! Just what we need around here."

He gave me a thumbs-up behind his father's back.

"It was the prize next to the TV," Harry said. "Can you believe it?"

"You were robbed," I consoled him, ignoring Jason.

"I tried to trade it for a sonic foot massager."

"You did the best you could."

"No, wait, Dad, this is really cool," Jason said, flipping the box to read the back. "It's got one of those learning chips. You have to program it."

His eyes glittered the way they did whenever something needed to be programmed.

"Be my guest," Harry told him. He sat down with an oomph and started in on the popcorn. "What an evening."

"How can a bathroom scale learn?" I asked Jason.

"It remembers your profile. You know, how much you weighed the last time, what your ideal weight should be, that kind of thing. And then it responds accordingly." Already he had the thing out of the box and was pushing buttons. "Hey, Dad?" His voice was innocent. "When you weigh yourself, do you want to hear a male or female voice?"


From the Hardcover edition.
Kay-Marie James|Author Q&A

About Kay-Marie James

Kay-Marie James - Cooking for Harry
KAY-MARIE JAMES is the pseudonym of a New York Times–bestselling author. She wrote Cooking for Harry as a way to help her best friend, who was struggling financially. She hopes that you enjoy reading it as much as she enjoyed writing it.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH KAY-MARIE JAMES

Q: A note in your biography says that you wrote Cooking for Harry for your best friend, who was struggling financially. Which came first, the specific idea for Cooking for Harry, or helping your friend? How did the two ideas merge?

A: The two ideas occurred pretty much simultaneously, though
it’s hard to re-create, exactly, how it all came about. Basically, I
had a book on the New York Times list, and my first big check
had just come in. My friend had recently given birth to her first
child—my first and only godchild—and she was trying to figure
out how she could afford to be a full-time mom. We were
having one of those late night, best friend phone conversations,
with lots of long pauses in which no one says anything and yet,
somehow, everything gets said. My friend didn’t want to simply
take money from me, and I wanted to do something for her and
the baby. Finally, we agreed that I’d write a book, something
easy and breezy and quick, using elements from her life, and in
return, she’d accept 50 percent of all royalties. We hatched the
plot together over the next few days, and I wrote the book in
three months.

Why the anonymity? A writer’s greatest challenge is finding
a balance between actually writing—the clean, quiet space
one needs to create art—and all the resulting promotional
obligations: interviews, book tours, questionnaires like this
one. Some people are good at maintaining this balance. I
am not. The thought of having to do yet another book tour
was simply overwhelming. And my friend, who really is a
physical therapist in Pittsburgh, was concerned that everybody
would think she, too, had run off with a handsome doctor.
(She has not. Nor have I, alas. In fact, I haven’t even been on a
cruise.)

Q: Cooking for Harry is a lot of fun to read. Did writing it pseudonymously allow you to have more fun with the writing process than you normally do? Was it easier to write under the cover of a fictional name? Did it make you want to write more books pseudonymously? Was there an ease or freedom in this process that might find its way in your other writing?

A: As I said, I wrote this book in three months. Typically, the socalled
literary novels I write take anywhere from two to four
years to complete. This is because they are considerably more
complex, both in terms of the language they use and the multilayered
stories they tell. Cooking for Harry is a straightforward
romp, narrated by a person who wouldn’t blush if someone
pointed out that the story of her husband’s diet, and its effects
on their marriage, isn’t exactly on par with the woes of Anna
Karenina. This, rather than anonymity, was what made the
book fun to write. Everything was plot, plot, plot, with lots of
little curlicues of humor woven in. At the same time, perhaps
because of my background as a literary writer, I came to care
deeply about Francie—who is, after all, patterned somewhat on
my friend—and I wanted to present her as a fully-rounded character,
a living, breathing person, instead of merely a frazzled
mother, a frustrated wife.

Q: However light-hearted, Cooking for Harry is an accurate
portrait of a family that has slowly veered off into dysfunction.
There’s an “elephant in the living room,” a problem that has
been gingerly stepped around and cannot be stated. That is,
until a talking appliance comes into the home. The scale is one
of my favorite characters in the book. How did you ever think
“her” up?

A: I’m married to a computer geek, whose definition of “light
reading” is an algorithm textbook. He’s particularly interested
in “AI”—if you’re a geek, you know better than to actually
articulate the words “artificial intelligence”—and though I
myself am not particularly interested in AI, Bots, Worms, and
other technological horrors, I apparently picked up enough over
the years to invent the New You Digital Scale.

Q: All families are, of course, at least a little dysfunctional. But
Harry and Francie’s family, which still seems very loving, does
seem to be approaching a crisis, along with Harry’s weight.
Amber’s intimate relationship keeps blowing up and her empathy
is faulty; Jason has become a real rescuer and caretaker; and
Francie herself is an enabler. How much of the kids’ traits do
you think can be related to their father’s unspoken problem?
And to their parents’ relationship dynamics?

A: As you mention earlier, there is an elephant in the Kligler living
room, and it’s inevitable that, after years spent walking on
tiptoe, members of the family will move through the world in a
way that is slightly off-balance. I think the kids’ traits are like
the traits of people in general; it’s hard to separate nature from
nurture, though, clearly each influences the other. Except in the
case of Amber. Amber, I think, would be Amber even if she’d
been raised in the desert by a convent of nuns.

Q: Francie, as the narrator, is very engaging and funny, but she’s
also part of the problem, and at times a little self-justifying, even
borderline unreliable. Was she difficult to write, or did she write
herself? Did you, as the author, like her every step of the way?

A: I didn’t find Francie difficult to write because I knew that her
love for Harry was sincere, a quality I can respect. And since I
was writing a romantic novel, I knew that her sincerity would
have to be rewarded, in order to create a satisfying closure. I
don’t think I like or dislike any of my characters. It’s more that
I feel I understand them better, at times, than I do at other times.
In a well-written book of any genre, the writer understands his
or her characters even when the characters don’t understand
themselves.

Q: Harry is a man who, when he starts to become self-aware,
turns away from his wife and toward another woman. How did
you feel about how Harry conducted his diet and himself?

A: Again, thinking about understanding—as opposed to judging—
a character, I guess I thought about how his relationship with his
weight, his body, his manhood, must have been arrested somewhere
in adolescence. It isn’t a grown man who responds to
Krys Palcek’s advances; it’s the boy who was never picked for
the team, the kid who stayed home on prom night to watch TV
with his parents, the guy who sat in the college cafeteria, laughing
and nodding as the other guys talked about their weekend,
all the while shoving doughnuts into his mouth. So it’s not surprising
that Harry finds himself tempted when, for the first time,
women start looking at him not for who he is, as a person, but
for what he looks like, as a man. It’s also not surprising that,
ultimately, he returns to Francie—and she to him—because,
underlying everything, the two of them are best friends, have
been best friends, for a long, long time. You can find sexual
attraction just about anywhere, but an enduring, sustaining
friendship—that is, a strong marriage—is precious, a gift.

Q: I laughed out loud at the way Harry’s family and friends all
feel free to add their own two cents about dieting—“Diets don’t
work,” they tell Harry, and “live large,” and “doctors don’t know
squat.” What is this impulse that people have to undercut our
efforts? How do we humans ever survive our friends’ advice?

A: Isn’t it the truth? And especially when it comes to comments
about emotionally-charged issues like eating habits and body
image. Everybody who loves us—parents, children, spouses,
friends—feels, at some level, that their love gives them a particular
claim upon our physical selves. Therefore, if we attempt
to alter that physical self in any way, say, by getting a haircut,
buying new clothes, or going on a diet, everyone who loves us
leaps forward with a comment that has more to do with their
relationship to us, their sense of entitlement to the bodies we
inhabit, than to any exterior reality. You lose ten pounds, put on
a terrific dress, and your mother says, “Are you okay? You’re
looking so gaunt. You’re working too hard.” You paint your
toenails, and your husband says, “That color reminds me of
kumquats. I don’t like kumquats. Are you trying to tell me
something?”
I mean, Yeesh.

Q: This book is filled with facts and expertise about dieting and
gourmet cooking. Which was more amusing and/or compelling
to research: dieting, or gourmet cooking? Which was more fun
to describe: diets, or food? Did you find out anything about dieting
that particularly surprised or enlightened you?

A: I hate to cook. My friend hates to cook. Fortunately, we married
men who love to cook, men who kindly but firmly removed
the whisks from our hands as soon as we were married. Men
who, loving to cook, have battled the bulge, so to speak, all
their lives, and with varying degrees of success and failure.
Five years ago, when my husband went on the Atkins Diet,
he lost forty pounds. When my friend told her husband—let’s
call him “Joe”—about my husband, what Joe heard was that
my husband had lost forty pounds eating bacon, and so Joe
promptly began to fry up a pound of bacon for breakfast every
morning. When I told my husband about Joe and his bacon, he
(my husband) began to fry up a daily pound of bacon of his
own. Of course, he began to gain weight again; Joe, who was
eating bagels with his bacon, was putting on weight by the
stone. My friend and I were putting on weight because who can
resist the smell of frying bacon? Eventually, however, we all got
sick of bacon, and everybody’s weight went back to normal—
for better or worse.

What is the point of this seemingly pointless tale? The point
is that there was very little research required for this book
because, between my husband and my friend’s husband, there is
always a man in our lives who is trying to lose weight. Flannery
O’Connor once said that anyone with a childhood has enough
material to write fiction. Kay-Marie James says that anyone
with a dieting husband has enough material to write just about
anything.

Q: Changing one’s diet really is changing one’s entire life. Did
you know when you started writing this book how each of the
characters would change? Did any of them surprise you in any
way?

A: My friend and I mapped out the general arc of the novel
together, so I knew, from the start, the general trajectory of
Harry and Francie’s fallout and reconciliation. I also knew that,
this being a romantic comedy, any relationships that cropped up
in the course of writing Cooking for Harry would have to be
resolved pleasantly, in order for the reader to be satisfied. This
is quite different from the writing I’ve done before, which has
been more “literary” in nature and, therefore, tends to reflect
more accurately the casual brutalities and unanswered questions
of real life. I guess my biggest surprise was how well Francie’s
neighbors came together as a neighborhood, and also, how
large a role Francie’s mother came to play during the worst day
of Francie’s life. Originally, I’d conceived the mother merely as
a voice on the phone. It was my friend’s suggestion to have her
arrive for Jason’s graduation, where everybody got to know her
better, much better—in some cases, in fact, a little too well!

Q: It seemed very chancy for Harry and Francine’s marriage for
Francie to take a cruise with Tommy Choi. Did you know the
fate of her marriage when you sent her on that cruise? Do you
think that calm seas might have yielded a different ending for
Harry and Francie?

A: As far as Francie is concerned, her marriage is already over
by the time she boards the Czarina with Tommy Choi. But I
knew I’d have to find a way to foil any significant romantic attempts
between them, and since I myself get queasy floating on
a raft in a swimming pool, the solution wasn’t difficult to find.

Q: Cooking for Harry is just the book to give to people on a
diet: It’s amusing, it’s chockful of facts, it lightly but intelligently
maps the emotional territory of dieting. Have you invented a
new form—the self-help novel?

A: I love it! Academics claim Henry James as the father of the
modern novel; I find a satisfying synchronicity in naming Kay-
Marie James the mother of the self-help novel. And if you like
reading well-written stories about the relationship between life
and food, Ruth Reichl’s memoirs are wonderful. Also the opening
chapter of Carol Shield’s terrific novel, The Stone Diaries, will
make your mouth water even as it breaks your heart.

Q: Will Kay-Marie James be writing any other novels? Do you
have any other alter egos clambering for pseudonymous page
space? Do you recommend the pseudonymous experience to
other writers?

A: I have actually begun a second Kay-Marie James novel, though
it is on the back burner right now, as I focus on finishing something
of my own. I have many alter egos as, I suspect, most writers
do, but the issue, of course, is time. I’m married, I’m a
mother of a young child, I live close to my extended family, I try
to maintain some semblance of an intellectual relationship with
the publishing world through reviewing and promoting the works
of upcoming writers. Every day, there’s another small fire to put
out: somebody is sick, the car needs an oil change, I have to feed
my mom’s cats while she’s out of town. These things all take a
toll on alter egos, on egos in general. Maybe when I’m in my
eighties, I’ll have time for that Stephen King–style horror novel
I’ve always wanted to write.
Okay, maybe not.

Praise

Praise

Cooking for Harry is a warm and tender read, brimming with love. Readers will certainly want to welcome Kay-Marie James into their lives with open arms and a big bowl of buttered popcorn.”—Jeanne Ray, author of Eat Cake, Step-Ball-Change, and Julie and Romeo

Cooking for Harry is a fine and funny novel written with plenty of snap. It reads like the zany collaboration of Elizabeth McCracken and Julia Child, with an added dash of Dr. Atkins and Jane Austen.—Anne D. LeClaire, author of Leaving Eden and Entering Normal

Cooking for Harry is an absolute treat. This book is for your mom, your sister, and your friends, and a must-read for anyone who has ever been on a diet! Hilarious, moving, it’s all there.”—Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Bad Girl Creek and Along Came Mary

Cooking for Harry is as delectable as a four-course feast. Can food really offer such a potent combination of nourishment, sensuality, and compassion? This wonderful book proves that it can! Kay-Marie James is a wise and winsome writer with a champagne pen who will leave you hungry for more.” —Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean and Christmas Present


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What do you think about Harry’s cooking—and eating? What role does it play in his life? In his marriage? When did it become an issue?

2. Why doesn’t Francie really notice or object to Harry’s slow, constant weight gain? What does she have to gain by ignoring it? What does she stand to lose by addressing the ever-growing problem?

3. How is Harry’s cooking and eating a family concern? What
roles do the various family members play in his weight gain and
weight loss (consider the children’s nicknames)? How does the
family contribute to the problem and its solution? Do you think
this family is dysfunctional?

4. Why does it take a talking scale to tell Harry the truth?

5. How does Harry’s community—his neighbors and associates—
react to his diet? If you have ever dieted, do you find their responses
to his dieting typical? Why are friends not always the most supportive people when it comes to dieting and other significant habit changes?

6. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. When does it go from
being a pleasure to being a problem? When, if ever, is some kind
of intervention appropriate? In your own experience, does intervention
work?

7. Harry’s diet, with its gym regimen and support groups, takes
up a lot of his time and, it seems, starts making him into a
new, improved person. Why doesn’t this lead straight to happiness?
When and how does this start to be a problem for
Francie?

8. What does Francie’s high school relationship with Lisa tell us
about Francie? What emotions and assumptions from this old
relationship have lingered in Francie and affect how she looks
at life in middle age?

9. “People change,” Francie says, then admits that she hasn’t.
How has dieting changed Harry in unexpected ways? How does
Francie have to change?

10. Discuss Kay-Marie James’s use of images and symbols: the
scale, a storebought cake, a borrowed handkerchief, a white
sofa. What stories do these objects tell?

11. How is adultery handled in this book? Lightly? Forgivingly?
Believably? Can adultery ever be good for a marriage?

12. What do you think of Francie going on her anniversary
cruise with Tommy Choi? Was it fair play? Too risky? In what
way was the storm “perfect”?

13. Malva, the neighbor, says, “There are two hundred sides to
every story. . . . But all of them end the same. Somebody has to
apologize.” Who should apologize for what in this novel?

14. What factors ultimately save Francie and Harry’s marriage?

15. Why do you suppose the author wrote Cooking for Harry
under a pseudonym? Do you have any idea which bestselling
New York Times author wrote this book? How can you support
your hunch?

16. How dietetic is this novel? Did it inspire you to go on or stay
on a diet—or did it make you hungry for a big, beautiful bowl
of buttered, salty popcorn?


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