cover image Olivia


Judith Rossner. Crown Publishers, $23 (334pp) ISBN 978-0-517-59720-0

Good news for Rossner ( Looking for Mr. Goodbar ) fans: after a lapse in His Little Women , she is back in top form in this bouillabaisse of a novel, the story of a woman who turns a passion for food into a career but in the process almost loses her daughter and her self-esteem. Narrator Caroline wryly describes her Manhattan youth in a family of academics to whom her interest in food is declasse; her disastrous marriage in Italy to flagrantly unfaithful Angelo Ferrante; the birth of their daughter Olivia; her term as chef of the Ferrantes' ristorante and her decision to divorce Angelo, who insists on retaining custody of Livvy. When events later bring Livvy to New York, where Cara supports herself by giving cooking classes, Livvy is a self-righteous teenager who hates her mother and calls her a ``kitchen monster.'' Manipulative, truculent Livvy is the quintessential rotten kid, so bad you want Cara to belt her one. Complicating Cara's life are her relationship with the doctor who lives in the upstairs apartment and a TV packager's yen to transform her cable TV show into a prime-time network star turn. When Livvy repeats her mother's mistakes, the narrative acquires complexity and momentum. Rossner takes some risks here in debating Jewish/Catholic attitudes toward abortion, but as both Cara and Livvy probe their uncertain ways to identity as mothers and as independent women, the novel ends on a satisfying, if realistically ambiguous, note. Anyone who likes to eat, cook or read about food will savor Rossner's descriptions of tasty dishes and culinary lore, conveyed with gusto and sensuous detail. Author tour. (Aug.)