Julie Mueller connects cooking with her mother's subservient domestic role - Betty has always had a meat, two veg and salad on the table by six, with something sweet to follow. A single mother, reporter, and part of the 'sandwich generation,' Julie has no time for such nonsense, particularly when shes's angling for one of the competitive places on the electoral team, following one of the candidates for the months leading up to the next election.
Betty thought she was doing the right thing when she ended her daughter's crush on Michael, the boy next door; at twenty-one he was four years older, and his white trash parents were an ominous predictor of his future despite the nurturing Betty had done. Now, twenty years on, Betty's not so sure she was right after all. To make amends she gives Julie a dessert making course at Boston's famed Cooking School, and engineers Michael to join the class to. Can love rise like a twice-baked souffle?
I've had mixed success with Strohmeyer's novels - I somewhat enjoyed one, and loathed another, so I approached Sweet Love with a little trepidation. The blurb is a little misleading - though the romance with Michael is present, it plays a secondary role to Julies acclimation to middle age - her daughter will be leaving for college in a few years, who parents are getting older, and she';s reevaluating her career and her life in general.
The mother-daughter relationships in the novel, between Julie and Betty, and between Julie and her teenaged daughter Em play a far more significant role than the relationship between Julie and Michael. Through the course of Sweet Love we get to know more about the women, particularly how a family history of breast cancer has shaped their lives, and discover how Betty's relationship with her somewhat distant husband has coloured Julie's picture of marriage and support.
Julie is relatively complex, has ssituations where career advancement battle ethics, and Strohmeyer clearly articulates her frustration at being an aid to those around her rather than being perceived as an individual with needs of her own - this is strongest when Betty assumes Julie can spend an afternoon taking her for an eye exam, not knowing Julie and Michael have plans of their own.
Despite these multiple elements, Sweet Love felt flat and undefined - the characters aren't very well presented, so we never have a strong sense of why Julie was attracted to Michael apart from habit, who Michael was himself, how he changes and why he was attracted to Julie, why Betty drew so much comfort from her emotionally and often physically absent husband, the relationship between Julie and her father, the relationship between Julie and her ex-husband, the relationship between Em and her father...
In many ways Sweet Love reminded me on an autobiographical first novel - though the writing was fine it felt as though Strohmeyer was working through some issues of her own. I say this because the character development wasn't as strong as I expected, and it ended with something of an 'eh' for me. Perhaps I approached Sweet Love as the romance it's very clearly presented as - title, pink cover, romance-focused blurb - but, as I said earlier, isn't. The book brought up some nuggets that caused me to reflect on my own mother-daughter relationship, but I didn't go into it with that expectation and so was left feeling rather flat. i think this is a third strike for me. - Alex