Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Love Goddess' Cooking School has an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Melissa Senate. 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.
Thirty-year-old Holly Maguire returns to a small island off the coast of Maine when she inherits her grandmother’s cooking school. In the proud tradition of her Italian grandmother, known for her fortune-telling abilities as well as her amazing cuisine, Holly begins teaching a cooking class. The class changes the lives of its students: a grieving mother, a newly separated father, a chronically single thirtysomething woman, and a twelve-year-old girl from a broken home. Can this neophyte chef keep the business afloat and possibly find love in the process?
TOPICS AND QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Holly arrives on Blue Crab Island after a devastating breakup. Two weeks later, her beloved grandmother passes away in her sleep. Now Holly is charged with keeping hergrandmother’s cucinotta going, despite her marginal knowledge of the business. Was there ever a time in your life when you were as down on your luck as poor Holly? How did you make it through and what did you learn from the experience?
2. Holly returns to Blue Crab Island because of the special bond she shares with her grandmother and the safety and comfort the island represents. Where is that special place of comfort for you?
3. Why do you think Luciana did not share Holly’s enthusiasm and love for the island? How does reading Camilla’s diary give Holly a clearer picture of her mother’s early life? How does their relationship change over the course of the story?
4. Each of Holly’s four students is struggling with a personal hardship: Juliet, with the loss of her child; Simon, with his recent divorce; Tamara, with her family’s concern over her being single; and Mia, trying to rid her dad of his awful girlfriend. How does the cooking class help each of them? How can cooking be therapeutic? Do you think great cuisine can be considered an art form?
5. Romance was never easy for Holly: “She’d let her relationships take center stage of her heart, mind, and soul. Maybe because she’d never found her niche” (page 31). How did her attitude toward romance change after her breakup with John Reardon and her arrival in Maine?
6. She may not have the “knowing” like Camilla, but how does Holly reach out and help her students with their problems?
7. Camilla Constantina is known for her fortune-telling abilities, at least “for being right 70 percent of the time.” Would you ever want to possess a gift like this? Have you ever had your fortune told?
8. Were you surprised at the disappearance of the infamous white binder full of recipes? Do you agree with the way Holly handled the situation? How did it make her grow as a chef in her own right?
9. Liam’s ex-wife Veronica shows up unexpectedly and throws a wrench into his burgeoning romance with Holly. Do you think Liam handled the situation tactfully? What about Holly?
10. What did you think of Mia’s risky plan to make the sa cordula for her father, to disprove Camilla’s prophecy?
11. Lenora Windemere branded Camilla Constantina a witch, which made life in the small island community very difficult for a woman on her own. How does Holly face similar treatment when she first arrives?
12. Holly might not have been the original “Love Goddess” her grandmother was, but she played matchmaker for two of her students, however inadvertently, and also managed to find love herself. Were you satisfied with the ending?
13. Melissa Senate’s writing, especially the descriptions of the food and its preparation, is so vivid. Did it inspire you to attempt a risotto or to enroll in a cooking class?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Make your book club night a potluck Italian dinner, with each member making and bringing her own Italian favorites. Sa cordula, anyone?
2. Exchange recipes with your book group, slightly tailored the Camilla Constantina way. Make sure each recipe includes one key ingredient such as “one fervent wish” or “one sad memory,” and each member can discuss what she chose and why.
3. Check out the author’s website at www.melissasenate.com for her informative blog and interviews with other authors.
A CONVERSATION WITH MELISSA SENATE
Where did the inspiration for The Love Goddess’ Cooking School come from?
I’d been thinking a lot about my own grandmother, who died a few years ago, and how much she meant to me, how much comfort she was to me during my childhood. It’s very likely impossible for anyone to think of her grandmother without thinking of food. Now, my grandmother was not Italian, not 70 percent psychic, not a cook, not anything like Camilla Constantina, but to me, as a young girl, she was magical, the queen of Queens Boulevard in New York City, where I spent weekend after weekend in her kind company. I suppose The Love Goddess’ Cooking School came out of my wanting to honor her memory, my enchantment with all things Italian—and a determination to learn to cook Italian food—and the wonderful way that cooking brings people together. My son, who’s eight, loves to cook with me, and I’ve noticed that he’ll tell me his secrets as he’s scrambling eggs or stirring brownie batter. As long as I don’t ask.
You live on the coast of Maine. Is Blue Crab Island a real place or just based on one of the many beautiful islands off the coast? How important is the setting of a story for you?
Blue Crab Island is fictitious and based on two nearby-tome islands—one, the island off my town (Yarmouth), which is reached via a beautiful bridge but is strictly residential, and the other, the amazing Peaks Island, accessible only by ferry but its own little world with schools and shopping and inns. Island life is so magical. And setting is everything to me—I moved to Maine from New York City in the summer of 2004, and as I set my novels here, I discover how much the state has become a part of me.
Poor Holly loses her boyfriend, her job, and then her beloved grandmother. Have you ever been at a similar crossroads in your life? How did you deal with the inevitable change that comes from these milestone moments?
I’ve been through some of life’s whoppers, and I think what has gotten me through are three things: (1) I’m an optimist (which helps a lot); (2) I’m very motivated by possibility. It’s one of my favorite words; (3) my motto is: Just do it. If you put those three things together, you can get through some trying times (including change, which has always been very hard on me).
You were an editor at a publishing house before becoming a full-time writer. Is it easier or more difficult being on the other side of the desk?
I loved being an editor (though I must say I hated contract negotiations), but it’s tough stuff—you have to keep so many balls up in the air, put out fires, be creative on demand, be all business, be, be, be. You’re the author’s advocate, the publishing house’s advocate. It’s a very demanding job, but it’s the best job in the world if you love books, love the business, love the process. Being an author isn’t easy— from the words that won’t come to the waits to the crushing disappointments, but it’s so incredibly fulfilling. I make up stories, tell them in my own voice, work out my big and small life questions through characters and themes. Writing is a joy. I liked working for a corporation, liked every boss
I’ve ever had (strange, but true), loved having coworkers and lunch buddies and office holiday parties, but I love nothing more than being my boss at a job so personally rewarding and making my own hours, especially since I’m a single mother.
Did you always want to write a novel where cooking was a major theme? What is it about cooking and good food that seems to be so cathartic? Is food central to your life?
I’m thinking about food right now. About spaghetti carbonara, which I wish I didn’t love quite so much. I find cooking so satisfying—following the steps, improvising, allowing yourself to experiment, to make a recipe a bit of your
own. And then you get to eat! It’s so much fun to cook with others—especially with my son, who loves to help in the kitchen. It’s impossible not to talk while you’re cooking with someone. The whole process is about sharing—and then you
get to share the results of your labor of love. I always knew I wanted to write about cooking, but I wasn’t sure in what way, until I started thinking about what would happen if a group of slightly lost strangers took a cooking class . . . how they’d form friendships, open up, how their lives would change because of the class, because of one another. I also wanted to learn to cook classic Italian . . . and did through Holly and her students. My chicken alla Milanese has gotten pretty darn good.
You have a knack for making the reader extremely hungry with mouthwatering descriptions of the Italian cuisine. Are you a cook yourself? What are the meals you go to for comfort?
Oh, thank you so much for that! It took me longer than it did Holly to make decent versions of the recipes I included in the book. I wish I were a great cook. I try so hard. But it’s not my talent. My favorite cuisines are Italian, Indian, and
Mexican, but my comfort meals are very classic American: meat loaf and mashed potatoes. A BLT. A good hamburger with ketchup and tomato and lettuce. Chicken soup. The perfect grilled cheese. And a caramel apple.
How long does it take you to complete a novel, from start to finish? How much research do you do for each book?
From start to finish, around nine months. I need to do a lot of writing in my head before I can start; I have to have the core of the story in my heart to understand what I’m doing. That can take me a while. But once I have it, the pages come quickly. I like to write a very clean first draft, revising as I go, so that when I get to the end, I basically have a third draft that needs only a solid edit and then a few rounds of polishing. The Love Goddess’ Cooking School required a
lot of research—about Italian cooking, which I’m fascinated by, about Camilla Constantina’s era (for her diary entries). I read so many autobiographies and memoirs—from Marcella Hazan’s to Julia Child’s to Anthony Bourdain’s. Food
and cooking were my life for the writing of this book, and I loved every minute of it. Even the very bad attempts at risotto and tiramisu.
You’ve written young adult novels as well as women’s fiction. Which proves to be more of a challenge?
Young Adult is way more challenging for me. To write a modern teenage main character with authenticity and not use one dated word, like “bogus.” Emotional issues facing teens may be timeless, but capturing the voice is very difficult. It’s funny that in two reviews of my last YA, one by a teenager said: “There was no cursing—so not realistic.” The other, by a librarian, said: “There was no cursing, so refreshing!”
Holly is such a relatable and real character. Do you ever base your characters on people you know or are they pure fiction?
Thank you! I never base my characters, main or secondary or the most minor, on anyone in real life. I’m not even quite sure where the characters come from, how they form in my mind, how they evolve. Camilla was likely started by my memory of a tiny, beautiful, elderly cook in a restaurant in Milan, Italy, but she was a very hazy image; I had to imprint Camilla on her. Mia, though, came steamrolling in
my head, fully formed from the get-go. I think all my characters deal with issues or emotions that are brewing for me, so the characters always feel so real to me. It’s very hard to say good-bye to the characters and their world when the end is really The End.
Your novel See Jane Date was made into a TV movie with Charisma Carpenter. If The Love Goddess’ Cooking School were to be made into a film, who would you cast in the lead roles?
Oooh, such a fun question. My dream cast: for Holly, Kate Winslet. For Liam, Robert Downey Jr. For Mia, Dakota Fanning. For Simon: Ryan Gosling. For Juliet: Vera Farmiga. For Tamara, Emily Blunt. (Colin Firth or Mark Ruffalo can substitute for Robert Downey Jr. if he’s too busy with Iron Man 3.)
When you begin a novel, do you have a clear picture of where you want to end up, or do you just see where the characters take you?
I need that clear picture. I always write to a last line, emotionally speaking. I write very detailed synopses— major emotional points, major plot points, and the major connectors— and then I use that synopsis to structure the novel by breaking the major points into chapters. Things shift, of course, but not the foundation. I need it strong and sound and supportive before I can write a word. When I first started writing The Love Goddess’ Cooking School, Simon was a young (childless) married couple (there was a Susannah, too). But as I wrote and his voice emerged, he let me know he was a lonely scientist trying to navigate single fatherhood. Camilla’s diary entries didn’t exist in the synopsis at all, but as I wrote, I realized Holly needed her grandmother’s parallel story in Camilla’s own voice to help her understand her mother. I never follow the synopsis to a T; the story needs to live and breathe and evolve on its own.
Your website is a treasure trove of information on authors and writing. How did you come to interview other authors about the process of writing? Who are some of your favorite authors?
I’ve long belonged to a great group of female authors who blog about one another’s new releases (in a wonderful show of support), and I’ll just ask authors whose work I admire if they’d like to participate in a Q&A for my blog. I love showcasing authors and reading about their writing processes and favorite books. As for my own favorite authors, I have so many. I’m crazy about Elinor Lipman, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, and Jennifer Crusie (to name just a few), and right now I’m reading everything Elizabeth Berg has ever written. I love memoirs, too. I’ll also generally buy any book that has half a woman on the cover. I love women’s fiction.
What would you like readers to take away from The Love Goddess’ Cooking School?
That fate and fortunes are a funny thing; that no matter what may seem predestined for you, you are the captain of your own little ship.
What are you working on next?
As of this writing, I’m putting the finishing touches on the first few chapters of a new novel about family, love, and the magic of movies.