Delicate, patient, and loving, Mary Troy’s novel Beauties offers what only good novels can: a world the reader can escape into. Set in the year 2000 in a seedy neighborhood in St. Louis, Beauties tells the story of two cousins who move in together. Bev, a woman born with severe physical disabilities (she is missing a leg and all but one of her fingers), has just opened a café and, in addition to cooking, is busy fending off a lawsuit from her previous job. Her cousin, Shelly, fresh from a divorce, moves in to help run the café. Soon, both women are handling all the drama life in an urban café can provide.
Troy alternates the point-of-view in each chapter, and though the voices of Bev and Shelly don’t vary much in terms of style and diction, their worldviews are certainly distinctive. Bev is the pessimist (no doubt she’d say realist), the one who has had to tough life out. Shelly is the optimist, a former model, a believer that everything can be made better. As both women fall in love, struggle with loss, and come to terms with what success means, their viewpoints shift and develop: Troy makes her characters believable and convincing.
Food, though, is the main character in this book. Though Bev’s ambitions for the café are minimal—of serving the customers, she says “pitching mice to the inhabitants of the zoo’s reptile house would have been as interesting”—Shelly takes cooking as her new calling. Her first breakthrough dish is a new take on pork cutlets, and she relates her plans in exacting detail:
I decided to add a Mexican touch to the German and dust the cutlet with cumin. Rather than gravy, I would make a sauce of orange and lemon juice and garlic to give it even more bite. Instead of the mashed potato/green bean/applesauce/ sauerkraut accompaniment, I chose to serve the pork over greens marinated in an Asian sauce that would pick up the citrus flavors of the cutlet sauce. I made that Asian sauce first by mixing the peanut oil, lime juice, a shallot, a chili, fish sauce, and sugar. Then I sautéed some mustard greens, bok choy, and some basil from my backyard garden, then tossed it all with the sauce and let it sit as I started on the cutlets.
This is not a book to read when hungry, but it is a book to read when looking for culinary (and other) inspiration. At times, the details of recipes go on at length, but for the most part, Troy uses the food effectively to convey tone and emotion.
The book sparkles with details of place—from the customers who offer Shelly carp from the Mississippi to the concrete playground of nearby St. Hedwig’s Catholic School—and digs in to the family dynamics of the two cousins. Subplots spread and multiply throughout the novel, from Bev’s desire to adopt a neighborhood boy, to Shelly’s love interests, to an aunt’s entry into a Senior Ms. Missouri beauty pageant. On the whole, the novel would have benefitted from a little more focus, a little trimming of the excess. The most delightful sections come from the depth of the relationship between the two cousins, as when Shelly realizes that Bev resents people being interested in her disability, that she is “offended that what [she] did not have was more interesting than what” she did have. A more focused storytelling might highlight and develop this relationship even more.
That said, Beauties is a delight to read. With exquisite attention to décor, food, fashion, and emotion, Troy has created a full and rich world and a novel certain to enchant anyone who picks it up.