Having read both of Susan Rebecca White’s earlier novels (Bound South and A Soft Place to Land) and enjoyed them, I really feel she’s written her best work so far with A Place at the Table. It tells the stories of Bobby, a preacher’s kid from the South who is rejected by his family when they discover he’s gay, and Amelia, a suburban housewife whose husband leaves her when their daughters leave home. Bobby and Amelia come from very different lives, but their paths cross in New York City, and both their lives intersect with the life of Alice, an African-American chef who’s made Southern cooking trendy in New York.
The different paths the characters travel to get to the point where they intersect are vividly described — I found Bobby’s the most compelling story, perhaps because we follow him from childhood through to adulthood and see his struggles all along the way. As you probably know if you read a lot of my reviews, I’m particularly drawn to books that do a good job of integrating characters’ religious faith into believable contemporary stories, and A Place at the Table does a superb job of this. While I don’t know much about Southern culture (except through novels) I know a lot about evangelical culture, and the scenes of Bobby growing up in that world are so entirely believable and real, it’s easy to see both why he has to leave home when his parents catch him making out with another boy, and why he always feels disconnected and misses the world he grew up in. A later scene where the adult Bobby, longing for the sense of God’s presence he knew as a child, goes into a Catholic church and is refused communion, is one of the most heart-rending things I’ve ever read.
Bobby finds a different kind of communion, as do Amelia and Alice, in sharing meals around a common table. Bobby becomes a chef at the restaurant where Alice used to work and explores love, loss, friendship and spirituality through cooking, which not only makes for a good story but made me pretty hungry while reading it (I’m happy to report that the recipe for Bobby’s Meemaw’s pound cake is included at the back of the book).
It takes awhile for the story to work back around to the prologue, which tells the story of Alice and her brother growing up in the racially divided 1920s South, but that story lurks in the background of the other stories, and the alert reader will notice where it begins to move to the forefront again. In one sense this novel reminded me of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed which I enjoyed so much recently — it tells about two very close siblings separated under tragic circumstances, but then goes on to tell the stories of several other loosely connected people before returning us to the two siblings. White, like Hosseini, avoids the sentimental happy ending while still offering hope — not just for the original divided family but for the larger families that people have forged for themselves through love and connection. By the end of this novel communion truly has been held, in many different forms, and the novel is a testament to the ways we create community even in the midst of tragedy.