Review: Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer
I discovered Liza Palmer's piquant novel Nowhere But Home thanks to Angie, who described it as,
"Recommended for fans of Friday Night Lights, comfort food, and top-notch storytelling."
As readers of this blog know, those are effectively my three favorite things, so, of course, I dropped everything else and picked up a copy of Nowhere But Home (which, incidentally, name-checks FNL on the back cover). Needless to say, this warm, funny and emotionally authentic story about a chef who finds herself begrudgingly back in her hometown not only met those expectations, it's most certainly destined to be one of my favorite reads of 2013.
Queen (Queenie) Elizabeth Wake's mother, the late B.J. Wake, gave her a big name so she could escape the Wake family destiny: that of serving the role of resident lowlife of the Hill Country town of North Star, Texas.
Queenie's sister, Merry Carole, followed in their mother's footsteps, having a scandalous teenage relationship with the town's golden boy football player and their son now is--quite controversially--the rising star quarterback on the North Star football team. Queenie, however, got out of North Star, first thanks to college in Austin, and then thanks to a series of chef jobs all over the United States. Yet once again, she's been fired--this time from a New York CIty hotel restaurant because she refused the ketchup a customer requested (I'm right there with you, Queenie). Out of options and with nowhere left to go, Queenie returns home to North Star.
The red light blinks. Welcoming me home. What's the exact opposite of blaze of glory? I look around my dusty Subaru, cut-off jeans, and think: me. This. This is what the exact opposite of a blaze of glory looks like.
Intending to stay with her Merry Carole only until one of the jobs somewhere, anywhere, else she's applied for comes through, Queenie is confronted by the past she's run from for all these years: her sister and her son, her mother's death, her lost love, her old friends, and all the trappings of the way small towns define and divide their residents.
Shortly after arriving in North Star, Queenie--both bitter and broke--finds work as a chef in an unexpected place, cooking last meals for the local prison's death row inmates. The work appeals to her because it's temporary and the inmates can't complain, plus it's a distraction that helps keep her from looking forward at her life's direction.
Worse yet, I began thinking about things: my life, my future, my past. These were not happy thoughts. Inertia had produced exactly what I'd always feared: contemplation.
However, preparing last meals at the prison is different than she expected. Despite Queenie's attempts to see each death row inmate as simply a meal, their last meal requests reveal a bit about each of them; because food is her life, clues from each prisoner's final meal tell her more than she ever wanted to know about them and chip away at the tough exterior she's cultivated.
...this darkness clouds over it all. Who I'm cooking for, when they're going to eat it. Where I am. I need to stay in the kitchen--mentally and physically. I will get my order and cook it to the best of my ability. I'll know that someone who really needs a little bit of comfort is receiving it. It's not for me to judge what they've done to land here. ...this is my job, so I will do it with integrity.
The scenes in which Queenie, along with two prisoners enlisted to help her in the kitchen, carefully prepares the meals of people soon to be executed were some of the most moving I've read in a long time. These moments are quiet, subtle and never overwrought, but they sure packed an emotional punch.
Also quite moving was Queenie's renewed relationship with her sister Merry Carole and Merry Carole's son.
Usually I shy away from sibling stories, because as an only child, I find these relationships perplexing. However, in the case of Nowhere But Home, Palmer draws the emerging connection between these two women whose shared history is so hard in a subtle, layered way. There aren't big emotional moments, but instead exchanges between the sisters full of humor and that awkward feeling-out that happens when people whose pasts knit them together reconnect.
Queenie also cannot avoid her high school flame, Everett, with whom she had a years-long secret relationship prior to leaving North Star. Theirs was a classic "wrong side of the tracks" relationship and Everett's upper-crust family would never stand for him to carry-on with Queenie Wake, daughter of North Star's one-woman scandal and he married someone else. Encountering Everett again opens up old wounds from their youthful relationship, wounds Queenie successfully kept closed and hidden for so many years.
I gather myself, take a deep breath, and run and run and run. I need to flush the grief I feel for what Everett and I had. That sweetness I just saw with Arrow was what I always loved about him. It's not as if I understood in the beginning what it meant to fall in love with someone. I knew love didn't mean that things were going to work out or made people nice. Love, to me, even at a young age, was complicated. I knew it didn't stop people from leaving or from hurting you. Love seemed to give people a free pass to treat you poorly.
A connection rekindles between Everett and Queenie actually received little page time, but it was quite moving, as it is very representative of both characters' relationship with their hometown.
It wasn't until I grew up a bit that I realized real love is more about the beauty of the everyday. It's not an acccident that every love story seems to end with the couple walking off into the sunset together. I think about Everett and Arrow walking the Paragon land every morning and how I had no idea he did that. I know things about Everett only the most intimate connections yield and yet have no idea how he spends his mornings.
The most vibrant element of Nowhere But Home (besides the development of Queenie's character) is the depiction of small town life.
I've been coming to this parade my entire life. It's one of those things your hometown does that you think is ridiculous and yet you wouldn't miss it for the world. The entire town shuts down and everyone just has fun.
North Star is like many rural, football-obsessed communities that no one ever leave--or, alternatively, to which no one ever returns--where its residents' roles and identities are defined by where they fit within the town's social hierarchy. I often find myself disappointed with small towns depicted as idyllic enveloping their residents with a warm crazy quilt of quirk and good-hearted nosiness. While there are many wonderful qualities of small towns, they also have their dark sides.
Football, while bringing the town together, does so in a way that usually reinforces the towns social stratification and when it doesn't (in the form of Queenie's nephew being named QB1 of the varsity team), boy, is the boat rocked and the town can't handle it.
"But North Star has always been about appearances. Without the Wakes, who knows who they'd feed on? They might have to take a look at their own pillars of society."
Ultimately, Nowhere But Home is a novel about coming home while simultaneously moving forward.
Queenie has to figure out a way to no longer allow her town to determine her destiny while also coming to terms with the fact that it shapes who she is and the person she needs to become.
I know this review is not very review-y, but this is the rare book that strikes all of the right emotional chords for me. The slow peeling back of Queenie's backstory, her transcendence beyond the teenage identity she believes will follow her forever. There were multiple moments throughout Nowhere But Home which caused me to choke back tears, because Queen Elizabeth Wake's story arc is one that's easy to connect with, despite that she's not the easiest of characters, but her journey is one of the most rewarding I've read in a long time.
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FNL Character Rating: This one could pretty much qualifies for all the ratings, but I'm going to go with what I believe is our first-ever "Dillon, Texas" rating. See below.