Review of Lipstick on the Strawberry by Margaret Spence

A sophisticated romance with depth and emotional power.

 A food photographer puts lipstick on a strawberry in order to make it gleam deliciously, if deceptively. The main character in this excellent novel is a divorced caterer, Camilla, a Brit who’s set up shop in Boston, so the title works for her role. But it is also the perfect metaphor for the intertwined themes of this book. Not everything is as it first appears. What’s hiding underneath the respectable cover might be a painful secret. Then again, strawberries in their unadorned state are quite delicious, so lift the lipstick and you might find exactly what you most desire. There’s plenty of tasteful desire in this book, along with smart, complicated family dynamics and the realistic push and pull between human beings who love each other, siblings, parents and children, and, not surprisingly, lovers. There are so many layers to this tale, you’ll stay glued. There is so much that’s smart and graceful about this book, you’ll stay alive and engrossed.

Spence’s language is a constant pleasure. Camilla carries her love of food into her way of seeing the world. People are often described as like this or that vivid edible. When Camilla looks at her sister Tilda and herself, she thinks, “We both had hair the color of tea. Mine was a darker English Breakfast while Tilda’s reminded me of Orange Pekoe.” Pay attention to that orange tinge, it matters. This is a tightly written, masterful piece with nothing wasted. Early in the novel, after Camilla has met a handsome artist with whom she discovers an immediate attraction that she does not express, she captures that glorious, confused feeling with this look out a window: “I could see the ships at rest in the harbor. It was a still day, so still that for a second the harbor below looked like a painting by Canaletto, the passers-by little figures marching across the composition, not quite like a camera’s image but placed just so by the artist’s sense of rightness. Then the feeling was gone, and I heard the noise of the city, muted by the water, pulling me back to the everyday world.”

It’s hard not to love a novel that sets its arc before you with this twist of humor, irony and insight: “It was an amazing coincidence, it occurred to me now. I was rolling pastry when I met my first lover, and I was rolling pastry when my father died. Not that anyone could anticipate that bashing a piece of dough with a wooden cylinder would change your life. You trudge or hurtle through the days, depending on your mood, and you can’t possibly know what ordinary actions signify until much later, when the pie is baked and the four and twenty blackbirds fly up to the sky.”

Dip into Margaret Spence’s Lipstick on the Strawberry and discover a delicious read.

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