Book Notes: Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

Molly Wizenberg’s first memoir, A Homemade Life, was a revelation to me. I’d been reading Orangette for quite some time, so when the book came out, I gobbled it up like a slice of cake on cheat day. I found her depth of emotion and authenticity utterly breathtaking, and was so pleased to be able to meet her at BlogHer Food 2010, mere hours after finishing the book on the plane that got me there. She was very kind and approachable and let me pepper her with questions about food blogging and memoir writing (I was in the thick of dissertation research at the time) when she could have been socializing and enjoying cocktails with her cohort of famous food bloggers.


So, when Delancey came out earlier this year, Wizenberg’s account of opening a restaurant with her husband, I was eager to read it. I was intrigued by the language about how the process inspired “the first crisis of her young marriage.” While I was a little worried that it would be another Cleaving, I knew that the details would be far less salacious, and was confident that this would be another meaty, satisfying peek into the life of a gifted writer-turned-restaurateur.

You know how sometimes you make your coffee in the morning and even though you haven’t done anything differently — you scoop the same amount of beans in the grinder, smash ’em up, dump ’em into the coffeemaker, add the same amount of water you always do into the chamber — you somehow wind up with a thin, transparent brew that barely breaches the blood-brain barrier? You’ll choke it down but all the while you’re plotting your route to the nearest coffee shop after you drop off the kids at school? I felt that same frustration and disappointment when reading this book. It’s about 256 pages long and by page 100 I was wondering when it was going to get interesting.

It’s difficult for me to articulate exactly why this book left me cold. Maybe my expectations were too high. So much of what she shared in Homemade resonated so profoundly with me — the midwestern upbringing, losing a parent to cancer, an abiding love of Paris, a deep commitment to home cooking — it was practically genetically engineered to hit all of my identification receptors. But Delancey just didn’t sing for me. Maybe it’s because I have never opened a restaurant from scratch before and so I couldn’t identify. But I also feel like Wizenberg was holding back this time around. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read the first book, but I remember it being more open and genuine. In Delancey, she seems to be somewhat disconnected from the experience, holding it at arm’s length, perhaps to protect her family from the gory details?

Here’s an example of what I mean. Late in the book, her husband finally cracks under the pressure of midwifing a new restaurant into existence.

He didn’t get the privilege of saying that he didn’t want to do it anymore. I told him this, or something like it. I screamed. I remember him asking me over and over why I couldn’t understand, why I couldn’t just comfort him. (189)

Here is a critical moment in this couple’s relationship and the way it’s portrayed here is just … meh. Beige. We are told, not shown, and it’s like this for most of the book. It’s thin coffee with too much cream. On top of that, most of the recipes at the end of each “chapter” (many of the interludes barely qualify as chapters) don’t really reflect, amplify, or comment upon what has just transpired in the narrative. They’re merely ornamental, as though Wizenberg felt some imperative to include recipes because she’s a food blogger. (And we won’t even discuss the cameos by a certain food blogger and her husband; I’ll save my feelings about that for my book group discussion.)

For me, Delancey is maybe indicative of a tipping point for blogs-to-books, in that I wonder whether the blog-as-commodity is waning. (A good thing, in my opinion.) I feel like publishers are hoping to trade on a big name (as in the case with Delicious!) and a built-in fan base (as in this case) and are sacrificing depth in the process. Along the same lines, I really enjoy Mallory Ortberg’s Dirtbag Teddy Roosevelt and Dirtbag Zeus, but I don’t see myself buying Texts from Jane Eyre. In short, I don’t think it’s necessary to monetize every blog post on the internet. I think that there is really brilliant, moving work living on the internet and I think that, in the case of Delancey, it loses some of its color and life in the movement from online to print.

I’ve got lots of books on my To Read list. I’m currently reading My Brilliant Friend; what have you read recently that we can discuss here?