If books were people, and if Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin married 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and if those two book-people had a baby, it would be Love & Saffron by Kim Fay, and that baby’s godmother would be Ruth Reichl.
I devoured this book in one day. Granted I was in a hotel room with a crying baby in the room on one side of me and a barking dog in the room on the other side of me and the roiling ocean waves off my balcony were the OG white noise machine soothing away my frustration at the poor weather conditions for my short getaway to the beach on my Easter break from teaching.
On my first day at the beach I visited the town’s independent bookstore and purchased one book of fiction (Love & Saffron) and one of nonfiction (Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson). Opting for the fiction first, I started Kim Fay’s short epistolary novel after breakfast this morning. My husband and I took a walk up and down the boardwalk and the wind and chill factor drove us back inside and back to our books. I was not unhappy, lol.
My first epistolary piece of literature, like many, was probably Diary of a Young Girl. When I started teaching, I discovered Karen Cushman’s masterpiece Catherine, Called Birdy. Of course I read Helen Fielding’s bevy of Bridget Jones’ works and stumbled upon a rather dry piece called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday which was a glorious gem of cinematography when adapted for film starring Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt. Eventually I discovered The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, and I realized with great clarity that I loved books told through letters or diary entries.
So, perusing the shelves in the bookstore on Monday, I noticed this slim volume on the staff picks’ shelf. The short description drew me in: a story of food and friendship, of love and loss. Yes please.
With its bright cover and clocking in at just 193 pages, you might be fooled into thinking this was a beach read. You would be wrong. Set in the early 1960s with the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the trauma of JFK’s subsequent assassination, Love & Saffron starts off innocently enough with a fan letter from a devoted female reader to a female columnist on the other side of the country. The letter is sent along with a small packet of saffron and a recipe of sorts for mussels steamed in a vermouth and saffron sauce. As the correspondence continues between these two women, much different in age and personality, a true friendship develops. In the span of the four years covered by the novel, we watch the friendship develop into a mutual love and respect for one another. In much the same way that Olive Kitteridge grows and evolves in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Imogen Fortier, as well as her husband Francis, also grows and evolves as a result of her correspondence with Joan Bergstrom. Imogen realizes that along with her unadventurous palate, she has not really given life a chance. Joan’s openness to foreign cuisines, international travel, and inclusivity begins to work its magic on Imogen. And, as quid pro quo, Joan’s confidence in herself as a writer and as a food expert, blossoms.
No spoilers here. The cover says “A novel of friendship, food, and love,” but there is loss as well and when it comes it tears a hole in your heart. That sadness is worth it, however. Imogen, Francis, and Joan all grow and evolve and live richer lives as a result of that one simple fan letter and a small packet of saffron.