Book Review

Can’t Stand the Heat by Louisa Edwards

B-

Title: Can't Stand the Heat
Author: Louisa Edwards
Publication Info: St. Martin's 2009
ISBN: 0312356498
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book CoverIf this book were portioned out and divided into thirds, two of the thirds would be so outstanding, so fun and awesome and interesting and innovative that I could go on for awhile on the things I enjoyed about them. The remaining portion dulls the sparkle and joy of those other two, because the flaws are contained in a character and in the structure of the tension.

Let’s start with the good parts: Edwards has created an absolutely fun new hero: the happy alpha. Adam Temple is the chef at the helm of a new restaurant, Market, specializing in locally sourced and organic high end cuisine – and he’s hot and smoking good at his job, too. Miranda Wake is a food critic with a deft and discerning palette and a snarly lexicon of words she employs when a restaurant’s food, service, or ambiance fall short. She’s at the opening party for Market with a cadre of other critics – and like everyone in the room, she’s blitzed off her stilettos, because they served a delicious cocktail but held back on the food just a bit too long. Tipsy and tottering on her heels, Miranda gets into a verbal sparring match with Adam, and before either of them realize it, they’ve publicly challenged each other: she’s going to be embedded in his kitchen to see how good cooking gets done – like, as she puts it, journalists in an army troop engaged in combat.

Edwards describes the kitchen crew as a pirate crew with Adam as their captain, and the comparison is totally charming and apt: Adam is totally the top dog in his kitchen. He’s an exceptional chef, he’s surrounded himself with people who he can depend on, who excel at their job, and who share his same goal: to relentlessly hunt and pillage fresh foods in search of innovation and perfection. He not only brings in the noise of being a star chef, he brings the funk, a side order of awesome, and badassery as well.

As Miranda discovers, Adam is, in every way, a chef of the highest caliber. And he’s not just blowing smoke or espousing a marketing gimmick in his cooking methodology. He does believe that local and organic ingredients make for better food – and in his hands, and the hands of his kitchen crew, his food is an experience. And Miranda discovers that being around Adam is an experience in and of itself, one she wasn’t prepared to like, and then crave.

Trouble arrives in several forms: Miranda’s younger brother arrives home suddenly, abandoning his studies at an Indiana University without explanation, and is transferring to NYU. Tuition? What tuition? It’s only a bazillion dollars – and Miranda’s a New York food magazine critic: she eats well and lives in a shoebox. She’s been shopping a book, a serious nonfiction examination of food and culture that receives no interest, but a proposal focused on a tell-all expose of the truth behind Adam’s kitchen doors at Market? That sells, and sells immediately.

So Miranda infiltrates the kitchen, not prepared to love the food, or like the chef, or learn to appreciate the pirate crew, who come to accept her as she sticks up for herself and refuses to back down in the face of intimidation. And Adam is indeed intimidating – when you fuck up in his kitchen, you hear about it, loud and clear. His word is the rule, and his leadership is not to be questioned. In his kitchen, he is the alpha and there’s no mistaking it.

But outside of the kitchen, and inside it, and in every aspect of his life, most of which revolve around food, he’s happy. He’s genuinely excited and joyful about his restaurant, about the possibilities of the food he’s cooking, the ingredients he can find, the creativity of his venture. He is, as I said, a happy Alpha. His joy and ebullience is palpable and reading about him is an experience to savor. He’s a wonderful, wonderful hero, one of the best heroes I’ve read this year.

And through Adam and the pirate crew in his kitchen, the other strength of this book emerges: you are behind the scenes (so seductive) in a kitchen, in a hot restaurant, and, when Adam discovers that Miranda can’t cook, in their one-on-one lessons as to the basics of cooking. You learn in slow steps, through dialogue and conversation and showing and doing and experiencing. There’s no mammoth spoonful of info that’s tossed at you unexpectedly. You learn with Miranda, with her brother, who becomes a server at the restaurant, with the rest of the crew, with every evening in the heat of the kitchen, until you as the reader are a part of all the action, from the steamy scenes to, well, the steamy scenes. There is some gifted and joyous character development at work in Adam and in his friends, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed following scenes with him, or from his point of view.

His joy at getting to know Miranda, at discovering her inability to cook and her talent with words, at translating what he’s trying to say to logic and comparison, is another element to his character that made him so strong and memorable. His role as the hero, and his position as the source of so much information that never once seemed overbearing, were, in a word, deft.

The secondary stories at work in the novel are equally powerful. Frankie, his Cockney best friend and master of the fine art of grilling meat (also wildly promiscuous and bisexual so Frankie’s adept handling of meat gave me no end of giggles) is unforgettable, as are Grant, the manager, and Devon, Adam’s former boss and celebrity chef du jour. There’s plenty of sequel bait among the men.

So what was the third that diminished the whole? The structure of the tension, and the source of that tension: Miranda. I had to try six times, and that’s not an exaggeration, to get past the opening scene, where Miranda, drunk on the cocktails at the Market launch party, is literally being held up by a brick wall and her somewhat abrasive and somewhat nebulously-established boss. She’s brash, brassy, and drunk off her ass, and comes across as a total ass. Once Adam enters the scene, things improve, but Miranda starts off at a disadvantage and it gets worse from there.

In this book, the tensions are mostly created by Miranda: what she knows, what’s she’s doing, what she isn’t doing, and what she’s said and has to regret and atone for. She fucks up constantly, then realizes and does a 180 to make up for it. Over and over and over. And over. Adam doesn’t have to grow or change much, except to include Miranda in his excitement and his world of the restaurant and trust her in his kitchen – no small feat. Miranda, on the other hand, needs to grow up and stop being suck a jackass fuckup – and it takes her a long freaking time to get there. Some of her blunders are so cringe worthy I was amazed the pages weren’t blank because all the other characters refused to speak to her. The imbalance of tension between Miranda and Adam was a drawback, because she causes it, then she has to correct it, repeat repeat repeat.

The other source of tension up and disappears after the first few scenes, and isn’t seen or heard from again, which makes no sense considering how all the characters who know her are so intimidated by her. The chief investor in the restaurant is an ex of Adam’s, and Miranda hears all sorts of scurvy rumors about their relationship – and of course she believes them, never having seen the two together, or hearing otherwise from either party. They must be true! For the sake of dramatic tension. She is stunningly and frustratingly blind to the obvious all too often, to her own great detriment. Gimme a box grater so I can clock this idiot on the head with the microplane side.

What’s so frustrating is that Miranda is exceptionally observant and possessing of very finely tuned senses, especially her palette, which is truly exceptional. But you know, her eyes, or common sense, or her brain, nah, don’t need them. Better to believe silly rumors from a dubious source. For someone whose job is to make up her own mind about restaurants and their cuisine, outside of the hype and the promotion, Miranda is stubbornly attached to the opinions of others instead of her own experience. It’s ludicrous, and it diminishes the power of the story overall.

Other small parts bothered me as well, such as the fact that madame investor disappears after the opening night, despite the successful launch of the restaurant. You’d think she’d show up at least once or twice to check up on her investment and bask in the glow of its success. Madame investor seems to exist as a source of tension in absentia, which weakens her, and weakens my belief that, to paraphrase John Sinnott, Miranda could get a clue if she danced naked in a field of horny clues wearing clue musk oil during clue mating season.

The strength of this novel is substantial, though. While the imbalance in the source of the tension between Miranda and Adam was frustrating, and Miranda herself was a liability to herself, the writing, the other characters, the setting, the nuances, and the imagery are marvelous. The food imagery is wonderful – except for one line that made me laugh so hard I got glared at on the train: “like he slipped her a surprise habanero pepper.”

Yeah, baby, slip her the pepper!

Other than the slipping pepper (wink wink nudge nudge), food and its various meanings and permutations are a fluid and discernible part of the writing in this book. It includes themes of home, heart, family, and nourishment, what people need to survive, and how the food we eat can communicate more than words can provide. More than the quote from Brillat-Savarin, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” (cue the Iron chef music!), Adam shows Miranda how the food you eat, and the food you prepare, can bring you closer to who you are. Even as she gets in her own way, it’s a marvelous pleasure to watch him escort her, teach her, and nourish them both.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Krystal says:

    Madame investor seems to exist as a source of tension in absentia, which weakens her, and weakens my belief that Miranda could get a clue if she danced naked in a field of horny clues wearing clue musk oil during clue mating season.

      Pepsi all over my monitor. Thanks Sarah. I’ll have to pick this one up. It’ll actually be my first Louisa Edwards

  2. 2
    Betsy says:

    Krystal—I was just going to quote that same line!
    God, I love this site.  I’ll have to pick that one up too.
    spamword: Leaders98: reminds me of Flight of the Conchords…“Team-Building Exercize ‘99” …it’s business time! (anyone?)

  3. 3
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    This is one I may have to pick up, even if the heroine is a raging jerk and the tension is manufactured.  It sounds as if all the other elements combine almost perfectly, and a genuinely happy hero who loves what he does and is good at it is enough of a novelty to catch my interest.

  4. 4
    Janet W says:

    I just want to know one thing (and by the way, what a marvelous review—I’ve learned not to have liquids anywhere close to the keyboard) … is the discomfort the heroine causes like the ripples Emma causes in the Jane Austen classic. Where the reader actually because uncomfortable? Truthfully, though, this book sounds delicious. Explain, though, why her publishers would jack up the e-book price. For shame.

  5. 5
    Jody says:

    Have any of ya’ll read The Last Chinese Chef?

    Nice smart hero, nice smart heroine, great food.

    spamword order44:  I could order 44 items off the menu!

  6. 6
    Lori says:

    It’s a brilliant debut novel, I thought. I disliked the ending immensely because of it’s manufactured feeling but the rest of the book made up for it.

    It’s well written and I found myself completely engaged by Frankie and Jess. Loved the kitchen scenes, wanted to go work in a kitchen after reading it.

    I’ll be picking up the follow-up books. I really want more Frankie!!

    My spam word is music43: music really kicked ass in this story too. How often do you learn about Patti Smith and the Ramones in a foodie romance?

  7. 7
    MelB says:

    If the food you prepare and eat tells you who you are…What if one burns everything, delights in hoho’s and has the pizza delivery place on speed dial? This guy would be the hero for me just because he cooks.

  8. 8

    Sarah,

    I read Can’t Stand the Heat, and I wholeheartedly agree with your review.  Adam was a great hero, and I loved him.  I didn’t mind the drunk introduction of Miranda – it was hilarious to see Miss Priss Miranda a bit too loose.  I also loved Frankie and Jess’s relationship.

    I found the ending frustrating as well.  I was angry at Miranda for her reaction to Jess and Frankie.  Would a sophisticated in every other way woman really react that badly to his revelation (and be so stubborn about it for so long)?

    I didn’t really focus on the absence of the ex-girlfriend investor, but you are spot on that she could have been used much more to add some needed tension.  Is she waiting in the wings for a sequel?

    Bottom line, I enjoyed it, too, and look forward to more from this debut author.

  9. 9
    Denny says:

    Really enjoyed the review. Will have to check out the book, and considering I don’t read contemporary, you really got me with your description of the hero, and what worked in the novel. Good review.

  10. 10
    Dana H says:

    The books sounds fun, and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I found out about it on Dear Author. But the ebook is way too expensive. Since I’ve only been buying ebooks for the past few months (except for some older OOP titles), I haven’t read it yet, and won’t be buying it until the price drops to something more reasonable.

  11. 11
    Elizabeth Wadsworth says:

    Is it only an e-book or is it available in dead tree format as well?

  12. 12
    Lori says:

    Elizabeth: it’s definately available in print.

  13. 13
    Muselady says:

    Spot-on review, Sarah.  There are so many things to love about this book.  While I cringed over Miranda’s escalating bad choices, in the end I loved the characters, the passion and camaraderie of the crew, and the evocative writing so much that I’ll eagerly pick up the next culiniterary offering from Ms. Edwards.

    spamword: york74 – I will gladly eat at this New York restaurant 74 times.

  14. 14
    Cladudia says:

    I might put this on my “to be checked out” list. 

    Having recently relistened to Kitchen Confidential and having recently read some firefighter cook+talentless food critic/cook   books, I belive I’ve experienced the best of the best and the worst of the worst Can’t Stand the Heat offers.

  15. 15
    willa says:

    …and weakens my belief that Miranda could get a clue if she danced naked in a field of horny clues wearing clue musk oil during clue mating season.

    Like others have said, love this! Golden!

    Having a family member who works in an upscale restaurant and having read books like “Waiter Rant,” my image of kitchens is that they are a mass of festering resentments and insanities. Or at least the people who work there are a mass of festering resentments and insanities. It’s nice to be reminded that working with food can be a joy.

    Think I might have to check this book out!

  16. 16
    ksquard says:

    Sigh. This is the 3rd or 4th review I’ve read on this book, all of which basically same the same thing. Looks like it goes on the never-ending ‘must be read’ list (currently, I’m reading #1 on the list, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.)

    Great review, Sarah. I look forward to the experience.

    spamword: age45. Is it trying to tell me something?

  17. 17
    megalith says:

    As a food critic, Miranda’s probably got a discerning palate. As an artist, I sure wish I had a discerning palette, but mostly it’s just a big hunk o’ plastic.

    On a more interesting note: Is Miranda a semi-lovable jackass on the order of Bridget Jones? Or is she such a jackass that I won’t be able to figure out what the hero sees in her? If the latter, I’d rather not end up regretting I bought the book.

    This review definitely piqued my interest, but I hate TSTL heroines who only get the guy because he’s using the “wang as dowsing rod” theory of relationships (TM SBTB). So, those who have read it, what’s the verdict? Is Miranda too annoying to enjoy the book?

  18. 18
    Kate Pearce says:

    I read it a while ago and I actually liked the fact that Miranda came across as a real person with real flaws who had to change and grow to gain her HEA. Because usually, it’s the guy who has to accomplish all that, so it was a refreshing change.
    Yes I got cross with Miranda’s attitude sometimes, especially in her dealings with Jess, but he’s her little brother and I can totally see that she’s over-protective of him and she felt very realistic to me.
    Overall the book was so well written that I enjoyed it immensely :)

  19. 19
    Cristiane Young says:

    It sounds as though the author skimmed off some of the plot of the wonderful German film Mostly Martha (2001), which was dully remade as No Reservations (2007).  Since I loved the original movie, I might just check out this book.

  20. 20
    Erin says:

    FYI, at this point, the Kindle price and the paperback price are both $6.99.

  21. 21
    Jocelyn says:

    Spot-on review and comments.  I agree that the Jesse/Frankie 2ndary romance was fantastic, and it really made the book for me.  I loved the punk references, and as a food nerd, loved the observations on kitchen culture and food sourcing.  I bought the book for the cooking themes, but loved the first 2/3rds for the wonderful gay characters – I’m not sure I’ve ever read better characterization of gay men in a straight romance.

    But, to answer megalith’s question “Is Miranda too annoying to enjoy the book?” – that’s what killed the last 1/3rd of the book for me.  She was mildly annoying but redeemable for the first 2/3rds, but instead of pulling her head out of her ass in the last bit, she does something mind-bogglingly offensive.  And then Adam (patient or clueless) and she have the first full sex scene in the book.  I had so little respect for her at that point in the narrative, it kinda ruined Adam for me, as well.  And frankly, I don’t think she ever fully owned up to how bad her behavior was.  Towards Adam?  Yes, she atoned for that.  But towards Jess?  No.  She never really took responsibility for her actions.  She explained them, but never really owned the fact that she made a mistake.  I closed the book still wanting to beat her about the head.  She really did ruin the book for me.

    I’ll buy this author’s next book, because everything but the heroine was very good – but I’m kind of hoping that as Edwards’ writing develops, she switches from heroines with clue-detection problems to ones that are just full-on unrepentant bitches as a way of generating conflict.  I tend to like them better.  I’d love to read a romance about Violet, from Adam’s kitchen.  She seemed like a fun kind of crazy.

  22. 22
    Maria Geraci says:

    I absolutely loved Adam and I actually really liked Miranda. I thought Edwards did a great job of showing how responsible Miranda felt for her little brother’s welfare and her growth at the end of the novel was very satisfying. I absolutely can’t wait for the next book in this installment!

  23. 23
    SheaLuna says:

    I’m not usually into contemporaries.  I’m more a scifi/paranormal/urban fantasy kinda girl, but this sounds like food porn.  And I like food porn.  Nigella Lawson, anyone?

    @Cristiane Young –

    Thanks for the movie recommendation!  I liked the premise of No Reservations, but thought they could have done SO MUCH MORE.  Have added Mostly Martha to my LoveFilm requests.

  24. 24
    Karen says:

    To echo what others have said, this was overall a good book—and I will buy the next one—but I will also say that I put the book down three times after some idiotic thing Miranda did (which I won’t mention) and honestly had to convince myself to keep reading…

  25. 25
    Brooks*belle says:

    Totally off the main topic….

    But everytime I see the legs of the woman on the cover of this book I think of Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H singing the lines, “I love to go swimmin’ with bow-legged women and swim between their legs.”

    Sorry—it’s just NOT a flattering angle for that model. (Says the girl who has slight knock-knees herself…) ;o)

  26. 26
    Alpha Lyra says:

    I read the book based on this review and really enjoyed it. Miranda was slightly annoying, but not enough to put me off severely—or perhaps the fact that I started the book knowing that Miranda’s behavior would be annoyed inoculated me against that flaw. Adam was fantastic. The book almost didn’t need a source of tension/conflict. I had so much fun just being in the environment of that kitchen. And I loved the secondary romance between Jess and Frankie.

  27. 27
    Alpha Lyra says:

    Oh, and I want to add, that I love reading romance novels where the source of tension is not the fact that the hero is a jerk. I guess in this case it’s just a gender swap… the heroine is the jerk :). What I really prefer is the kind of romance novel where neither of them are jerks!

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