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Angelina's Bachelors

A Novel with Food
By Brian O'Reilly

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Angelina's Bachelors includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Brian O'Reilly. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    When Angelina finds herself suddenly widowed and jobless, she picks herself up the best way she knows how—by cooking. Her culinary pursuits catch the attention of retiree Basil, who has just moved in across the street from Angelina. Basil makes Angelina an offer she can’t refuse: he’ll pay her handsomely in return for preparing most of his meals. Angelina jumps at the chance to make some money doing what she loves, and soon expands her list of clientele to seven hungry bachelors. This disparate but charming group of men forms a protective circle around Angelina— providing her with a new kind of family.

    Topics and Questions for Discussion

    1. In the beginning of the novel, Angelina states “. . . cooking was not just about food. It was about character.” (p. 2). What does she mean by this statement? How is it true throughout the book? How does food define her character?

    2. Angelina is furious when Amy tries to pass off a storebought cake as her own. Why does this anger her so much? How would you have reacted?

    3. Family and community are extremely important to the characters in this novel. “In South Philly, the organizing principles were family, church, and neighborhood, in that order.” (p. 45). What are the “organizing principles” in your life? Are they similar to Angelina’s?

    4. Angelina turns to her passion for cooking as therapy after her husband dies. Do you have a hobby that has helped you through a tough time?

    5. Basil is the one who initially proposes that Angelina cook for him. Were you surprised at his rather unique request?

    6. Angelina learns to cook from her mother and other family members, and she in turn teaches Tina. Do you have any family cooking traditions? How did you learn to cook?

    7. Think of your own relationship with food and cooking. Are there particular meals that elicit memories or strong emotional responses? What is your favorite “comfort food”?

    8. Angelina and Guy pay a spontaneous visit to a fortuneteller, who tells them “You may hold a new life in your hands.” (p. 174). What did you think she meant by that? Do you believe in fortune-telling?

    9. Two momentous events happen on Christmas Eve: Johnny proposes to Tina and Angelina discovers she is pregnant! Which surprised you more? What did you think of Johnny’s proposal?

    10. Basil tells Angelina about a book he has read, Cyrano de Bergerac. (pp. 206–207) Of its heroine he says, “So, by not choosing, she made her choice.” (p. 207) Do you see any parallels between Cyrano de Bergerac and Angelina’s Bachelors?

    11. Look back over the chapter titles, which often include the names of food dishes and clever plays on words. Which is your favorite? Why?

    12. When Angelina is in labor, she thinks, “The only way to get to the other side of anything is to go through it.” (p. 255) Do you agree? How is this evident in the novel?

    13. Angelina’s Bachelors features strong, independent women, such as Angelina, Gia, and Mrs. Cappuccio. Think about the gender roles in this novel. How are they traditional and how are they unconventional?

    14. Compare and contrast Guy and Jerry. Which one do you think is a better match for Angelina? Who would you pick for her?

    15. Angelina names her restaurant Il Primo Amore, after the Italian saying meaning “The first love you never forget.” If you were to open a restaurant, what would you name it?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Have everyone in your group make a recipe from the book to bring to your meeting—make sure to coordinate main dishes and sides! Or gather in the kitchen and make a meal together.

    2. Angelina’s tight-knit community frequently brings food to neighbors in times of trouble. Make an extra dish and take it to a neighbor or friend, or donate food and/or your time to a local food pantry or soup kitchen.

    3. Angelina loves cooking to the music of Louis Prima. You can pick up his Greatest Hits CD for under $10 online, or download a few tracks to get a feel for his exuberant and eclectic style—make sure to listen to his hit song “Angelina”!

    4. Angelina and Guy visit a fortune-teller for fun one night. As a group visit a local fortune-teller, or use Tarot playing cards and an online guide to tell one another’s fortune yourselves.

    5. Basil wants to “experience the artistic side of life” in his retirement. Reread his “bucket list” on pages 81 and 82 (reading epic poetry, going to museums, listening to opera, etc.), and pick one to do with your group. Do you have your own “bucket list”?

    A Conversation with Brian O’Reilly

    You collaborated with your wife, Virginia, for this novel. Tell us about your partnership. Did you come up with all the recipes? How did you choose which to include?


    Angelina’s Bachelors
    was a true partnership. Roughly, the division of labor between Virginia and me fell along the lines that I was primarily responsible for the writing, she for the recipes, but there was a lot of crossover, particularly since she provides much-needed feminine perspective. It’s probably fair to say that first and foremost I write for her—she reads everything before anyone else, usually as the chapters are being written, and I rely on her judgment implicitly. Her critiques and suggestions are inevitably spot-on. Her input was invaluable (as you might expect) in crafting the scene in which Angelina gives birth, for instance, and in charting the course of the complex and shifting relationship between Guy, Jerry, and Angelina. The name “Angelina” was Virginia’s suggestion. In terms of the recipes, I often request a recipe for an element I feel I need from a literary or plotting standpoint (“. . . the most incredible cake ever made, please—and work Frangelico in there somehow”; or “an irresistible, seductive three-course dinner for two”; “oh, and a lasagna that changes a man’s life forever . . .”), that sort of thing; Virginia makes them a reality. If I’m not looking for something specific, she just goes off and comes up with something wonderful and surprising that surpasses my wildest expectations (Aubergine Napoleons, anyone?). She’s created a recipe for virtually everything mentioned in the book, and we chose which to use based on what made the most impact in context.

    Who does the cooking in your house, you or your wife?

    We’re pretty much a cooking household, and I think we have complementary skill sets. When I’m in-house writing, I like doing the day-to-day cooking—my favorite thing is to stick my head in the refrigerator, see what we have on hand, and throw together omelets for breakfast, or an interesting pasta or salad dish for lunch; I like to sauté and roast for dinner, with maybe a hearty soup or stew (I love single-pot meals) and a giant, seasonal salad thrown in for good measure. (We rely on tomato sauce—red gravy to some—with sausages and meatballs, cooked faithfully every Monday, to fill in the gaps.)

    Virginia is a skilled baker (thus, my sad addiction to pie) and, I’d say, is more of a fine cook than I am. She now has vast experience in researching, testing, and creating chef-level recipes, having written for Dinner: Impossible, two published cookbooks, and for Angelina’s Bachelors. She knows how to build mother sauces, what pairings work best classically, and so forth. I’m more of an improviser in the kitchen. Once, we received a gift of lobster tails for Christmas, and I just backed out of the kitchen slowly and let her go to work. Most memorable—open-face lobster- and-mascarpone raviolis made with handmade pasta sheets in a champagne lobster sauce.

    Angelina learns many of her cooking skills from her mother. Who taught you how to cook?

    My mother always made sure we had big family dinners at home, so I grew up in that tradition. I like to say that I really started to learn how to cook from Emeril Lagasse; I was obsessed with Emeril Live when it first started and I would watch what he made one day, then try my hand at re-creating his dishes for dinner the next (his garlic soup was a revelation). Virginia and I are both fortunate to have worked with fantastic chefs during the run of Dinner: Impossible and throughout the writing of two cookbooks, and that was a full-blown cooking education in and of itself.

    Virginia has been cooking since she was little; the story about making butter from whipping cream is a real-life experience from her childhood. She’s always researching and studying and picking up new techniques (Michel Richard has been an ongoing inspiration for her). In the end, I think you learn the most from doing—once you start cooking real food day in and day out for your family and friends, you’re on your way.

    Do you have a favorite dish or comfort food you turn to during difficult times?

    Good days and bad, we always try to make sure we eat well. Good food brings you right to back to your center, even if you’re feeling assailed on all sides. Spaghetti alla carbonara, fish and chips, bangers and mash, deviled eggs, duck cassoulet, lemon meringue pie, even a good bagel with lox and cream cheese (and maybe a little red onion . . . couple of capers . . .), all fit the bill. Virginia makes a tuna melt with fresh albacore tuna steaks that can cure a rainy day—and her shrimp cocktail . . . oh, my.

    One note along these lines—make soup. If you can chop vegetables and boil water, you can learn to make soul-satisfying soups in practically no time at all. Get your hands on an immersion blender and get started right away. There is simply nothing that compares with homemade soup.

    Your characters are well developed and have original quirks— they feel like they could be real neighbors. Are any of them based on people you know?

    I would say that the characters in Angelina’s Bachelors are more amalgamations of people I’ve known, informed by real-life events, but not so much based on real individuals. Partly, the character of Don Eddie is inspired by stories I’ve heard over the years from my mom and dad about a guy named Blinky who lived across the driveway from my grandmother outside of Philadelphia. He was legendarily known as a “fight fixer” but had a soft spot for my mother’s family. I kept some of the more colorful elements (the cases of champagne at Johnny and Tina’s wedding is based on a real story from my parents’ wedding), and took out the scarier ones.

    Virginia contributed many anecdotes, such as those about a priest she knew who left the clergy for a while and who, upon his return, was very open in his sermons about some of the experiences he’d had as a lay person that ultimately enriched his ability to minister to his congregation. We both have the deepest affection for the character of Basil Cupertino, the quasi-confirmed-bachelor uncle, loosely based on a number of professorial and genteel older gentlemen we’ve observed and admired over the years.

    You seem very familiar with Italian culture and the neighborhoods of South Philly. Are you Italian? From Philadelphia?

    I went to school in Philadelphia and I’ve had friends and acquaintances from South Philly. It’s a place with a deep “people” culture. People who grew up in South Philadelphia seem to intrinsically know something about one another, even if they’ve never met. I’ve never lived there, but I think it’s a very human place, where the values of family, loyalty, and neighborhood are front and center. It always struck me as an interesting place to be from. At the heart of it, there’s the food. Red gravy seems to flow through everybody’s veins in South Philly from birth. Food is taken seriously there. Philadelphia is a world-class city in many ways and underappreciated, perhaps because it is eclipsed by its proximity to New York and Washington, D.C. It has so much history and culture to offer. It’s an appealing setting because the history that’s important isn’t just the colonial history of Independence Hall, but the kind of history that the funeral director Mr. DiGregorio prides himself in knowing, how families are intertwined—the history that impacts our daily lives and how we live those lives. The culture is not just the “culture” of the Philadelphia Orchestra, it is the culture of ancestry that, in a setting like South Philly, you can practically taste. For lovers of food and cooking, the 9th Street Italian Market is as real as you can get. A visit there makes you want to be an Italian. Choosing this particular setting was a very conscious choice because of its natural fit with the story line.

    This is your first novel. What inspired you to move from cookbook to novel format? How was the writing process for Angelina’s Bachelors different from that of Mission: Cook! And Impossible to Easy?

    Writing Angelina’s Bachelors was an exercise in pure pleasure. The novel was inspired by a story my wife told me about a woman she knew of, an older widow who cooked for gentlemen in similar circumstances. The idea grabbed me right out of the box; it seemed wonderfully old-fashioned and had limitless possibilities for the exploration of character through the prism of cooking and food. The cookbooks were fun to write and, as I said, intensely educational, but my aspiration has always been to write fiction—hopefully, we’re off to a good start!

    You are the creator and executive producer of Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible. What inspired you to create the show?

    Dinner: Impossible
    came about some time after I had met Robert Irvine. I’d had it in mind for a while to pursue the idea of creating a Food Network show and Robert had amazing credentials. I also thought he had some compelling personal attributes that were ready-made for TV. We tried a couple of different formats that didn’t work, but once I got to know him better and heard some of his stories of cooking under fire (for instance, throwing together a last minute bash for the 2005 Oscar ceremony), we went with the idea of essentially putting him into “impossible” cooking situations (in an authentic colonial kitchen without electricity, in an ice hotel in sub-freezing temperatures, on a deserted island . . .), and watching what happens as he tries to cook his way out of them. I think he’s a remarkable chef.

    Can you tell us about any projects you’re currently working on? Do you have plans for a sequel?

    On the TV front, I’m working on a developing a couple of projects for PBS that have more to do with politics (another passion of mine) than cooking. We’ve just about completed work on a second novel. Don’t want to give out too many details, but it’s another “Novel with Food,” and features a strong female central character who, you’re probably not shocked to learn, is also an excellent cook. Beyond that, still have a few surprises in store.

    Angelina’s Bachelors seems like it would lend itself well to a movie format, such as books-turned-movies like Julie & Julia and Eat Pray Love. Do you envision a movie for your novel? If so, who would you cast?

    We actually talk about a possible film version of Angelina’s Bachelors quite a bit. The name that most often comes up for Angelina is Marisa Tomei; for Basil, Alan Arkin, which would be a dream come true. The mental image we have of Jerry is Dermot Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding, and, as a Boston Legal fan, I can’t get Mark Valley (Brad Chase) out of my head as Guy. We’re huge Alan Rickman fans and I think he’d make an indelible Douglas Pettibone. For Don Eddie? We like Ernest Borgnine (and not just because he’s Mermaid Man!).

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