Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Review of Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories

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Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories
by Rebecca Barry
Simon & Schuster, 2015; 293 pages; $25

Shortly before my first pregnancy, I spent two weeks at an artists' colony, revising my travel memoir. I spent the next nine months querying agents, and a handful of them asked to look at the first 50 pages of my manuscript. One even encouraged me to write a book proposal, so while staring down my child's due date, I gave it my best shot; after my first daughter was born, the agent offered feedback for substantially revising the proposal. I told her I would try as soon as I was able.

Nearly three months later, a week before I was scheduled to return to work, I placed my daughter in day care so I could give the revamped proposal my full attention. After sending it in, I reinserted myself into the work-world, struggled with all that transition brings for a new mom, and received another email from the agent that essentially said, "This is better, but here are some suggestions for your next revision." Sadly, that was it for me. I had to be kind to myself during the most seismic shift of my life, and part of that, unfortunately, involved putting my dream away indefinitely.

I remembered this sequence of events vividly while reading Rebecca Barry's Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories, a collection of her journal entries that span the five years (2007-2012) when she and her husband moved from the city, and the steady jobs they had there, to upstate New York to buy a fixer-upper apartment building, start a family, and live a "simpler" life near Barry's hometown.

Barry—author of Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories as well as short stories and essays—planned to write her novel and take care of the couple's two young sons; her husband, meanwhile, aimed to work in the city for ten days each month to pay the bills, and when he was at home, put together a business plan for a new magazine he planned to launch.

But trying to write a novel while taking care of small kids is, of course, like trying to brush your teeth while eating Oreo cookies. The building's maintenance demands were endless; money grew scarce; and when the recession hit in 2008, the timing of a magazine launch seemed particularly unlikely and doomed. So Barry's letters from this difficult, transitional time in her past, during which she and her husband abandoned their former life in order to live their dream, touch on issues related to parenting, extended family relationships, marriage, living a creative life, ambition, money, sacrifice, failure, and re-calibrating what success looks and feels like.

Each short journal entry in Recipes for a Beautiful Life has a "how to" title that often drips with irony: "How to Sleep Better at Night" explores anxieties that kept Barry awake through the wee hours; "How Not to Yell at Your Children" chronicles Barry’s struggles with her temper. Plus, occasionally, the entries are followed up with recipes, both the food (like butternut squash soup and chicken garlic broth) and the more figurative kind (recipes for a good family vacation, for awakening your creativity and the like). The "how to" motif and the recipes can feel a bit forced at times, but Barry's often-witty insights and candor make up for this minor deficit.

The book's charms include a bracing exploration of the jealousy that a stay-at-home-parent of an infant/toddler often feels toward a working spouse: "In the background I could hear adults talking to other adults in mature, calm voices. No one was screaming. No one was refusing to take a bath. They were all talking quietly and getting things done."

There's also a funny aside regarding domestic anxieties: "How do other people with small children keep their houses clean? Never mind. I don’t want to know, because the explanation probably has words like 'organized' and 'systems' in it, which won’t help me. I’m looking for a solution with words like 'magically disappear' or 'and they also finished her book for her while she was sleeping.'"

Finally, Barry also takes pains to include the way kids' reflexive honesty cuts through the lies we tell ourselves. When Barry gets frustrated and throws both boys' bikes off the back porch, she apologizes and says that things get broken when you don't share; her oldest son replies, "'Actually, . . . things get broken when you throw them off the porch.'"

These moments of laugh-out-loud comedy—including Barry's two sons arguing about whether or not a snowman has a penis—act as counterweights to the more fraught moments of this memoir, which hit their peak when Barry confesses, during a brutal phone call to her editor, that the novel with which she's been battling simply isn't salvageable, despite her having already spent the advance.

Understandably, Barry slips into a funk, having spent years writing something that will earn her neither money nor recognition: "'Why do I need so much?' I thought. 'Why isn’t this enough, this house and this life and this family and this man? Why can’t I just be happy?'"

Because whether it's rational or not, we all, not just writers, have an inner drive to create something that outlasts us—something that affects people in a palpable, meaningful way. And while the novel that Barry labored so hard to write in Recipes for a Beautiful Life ultimately came to naught, the memoir she wrote about that very failure, ironically, has far more potential to endure.

Indeed, after reading Recipes for a Beautiful Life, I dusted off my travel memoir manuscript—after nearly eight years away from it—and pitched it to an indie publisher I recently met. For, like Barry, I'd hoped, but had profoundly struggled, to further develop my work after becoming a mother.

But fortunately for Barry, and for us all, as our kids grow older and need us a little less, we can often eventually pick our dreams back up, right where we left them.

Jenn McKee is the staff arts/entertainment reporter for Ann Arbor News. She earned an MA in English from the University of Georgia, and an MFA in creative writing from Penn State University. Her story, “Under the Influence,” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for the anthology, “Best New American Voices 2003.” She lives in Farmington, Michigan with her lovely husband and two daughters.

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