“August came to Florida every year, but it felt like the end of the world every time because of how empty the streets and sidewalks became — everyone stayed inside. It got so bad that you started to blame the heat on other things — the palm trees and the beach and the sunsets and the sand — because heat that unpleasant had to be blamed on something. It surely wasn’t benign.”
That’s from Caroline Zancan’s first novel Local Girls (Riverhead, purchased hardcover), in which she not only nails the August hothouse that is Central Florida, but also the restlessness of teenage girls, the intensity of female friendships and our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Maggie, Nina and Lindsay grew up together in a working-class town stranded between Orlando and the beach. At 19, they’ve put high school behind them, and college isn’t on the agenda. After a day working dead-end jobs at the local mall, they head for their favorite dive bar, the Shamrock, where owner Sal turns a blind eye to their underage drinking and their ongoing feud with the country club college girls across the room.
Maggie, who suspects she’s pregnant, tells the story, beginning with the August night the trio spots movie star Sam Decker alone at the Shamrock drinking away what turns out to be the last night of his life. She seamlessly splices scenes of Sam buying drinks for the girls with those from their shared past, back when Lila Tucker was part of their group before her dad struck it rich and moved the family to a classier subdivision. Nina was their leader back then, as she is now. The conversations among Sam and the girls, who test their knowledge gleaned from celebrity magazines against the real thing, provide enough material for a good stand-alone story. But thehgradual revelations of the girls’ backstories — the sleepovers, the meet-ups at abandoned real estate projects, the escalating “prank wars” involving smart prepster pal Max — turn it into something more moving and rewarding. The girls may be local, but Zancan invests them with recognizably universal emotions of loss and longing. Orlando in August — hard to tell the sweat from the tears.
My other favorite first novel this summer is J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is not a cookbook, although it does include a few recipes. But it is the kind of book you devour, or at least I did, even as I wanted to savor every last word.
The novel is about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, beginning with her chef father Lars who introduces her to the taste of a Moonglow heirloom tomato as a baby. Poor Lars. His waitress wife Cindy leaves him and Eva, and then he collapses while lugging the hated lutefisk up the stairs for Christmas dinner.
Eva grows up in Minnesota and Iowa with her aunt and uncle, the kind of smart kid who writes her vocabulary sentences in iambic pentameter to make homework interesting. By age 11, she’s raising hydroponic chile plants in her closet, supplying local restaurants with her exotic peppers and also using them to exact revenge on the classmates who bully her because of her awkward height. Her college cousin Braque takes her in when she runs away, and the two scam chili-eating contestants at local bars. Then there’s the high school guy who falls hard for Eva, introducing her to the wonders of grilled walleye. She’s goes from restaurant intern to sous chef, arousing jealousy in a supper club member who can’t deny that Eva’s succotash is superior.
A later chapter finds Eva as a successful pop-up chef and judge at a gourmet baking contest, where county fair winner Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies. But not by Eva, who compliments her on her bars and looks “at Pat in a strange but warm way, as if Pat were a letter from home with money inside.”
The peanut butter bars reappear in the last chapter, as do other ingredients and people from Eva’s life. It’s a satisfying ending to a delicious tale. Yum.