Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer
Published: 2013, William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Adult Contemporary
During Whitney and Merry Carole’s little banter, everything comes rushing back. I can’t believe I was so naive. There is no coming back to North Star on my own terms. I may be older and wiser, but we are still the villains. We are still the unwanted. We are still the ones parents point to and warn, “Don’t brush your teeth and you’ll end up like poor Merry Carole and Queenie Wake. Let a boy get to second base and you’ll end up like poor Merry Carole and Queenie Wake. Cheat on that final and you’ll end up like poor Merry Carole and Queenie Wake.” Being Brandi-Jaques Wake’s daughters meant being branded a pariah.
We are North Star’s very own bogeymen.
Never would I ever have imagined that my first five-star read of 2014 would be a work of contemporary adult fiction (that could probably be classified as “chick lit” by those who so desired to). After seeing positive review after positive review, I knew that I would eventually read this one, but perhaps as a lighter fare in between heavier reads. But this story ended up being so, so much better than I could have anticipated.
Over the past decade, Queen Elizabeth Wake has become skilled in the act of avoidance. She left her hometown of North Star, Texas shortly after graduation and hasn’t looked back since. She has no desire to return to the town where she has the unwelcome distinction of being Brandi-Jaques Wake’s daughter. Her mother was a talented chef, but also an example of parental neglect, as well as the town slut. As far as Queenie is concerned, the only legacy worth adopting from her late mother is her passion for cooking. For Queenie, North Star is full of too many painful memories, too many raw emotions, for her to ever want to return.
When Queenie finds herself fired at yet another restaurant in New York City, she’s forced to face a hard truth: she has nowhere she wants to go, nothing she wants to do. Until she figures that out, Queenie decides to return to North Star and live with her older sister and nephew. For a brief visit, she reassures herself. But after a decade of running, Queenie realizes that she can no longer evade her past. By returning home, Queenie has the opportunity to face the demons of her past - and perhaps ensure that they no longer continue to haunt her future.
Basically my attitude towards everything about this book came as a surprise. I loved the characters and their relationships, appreciated the messages on family and owning up to your fears, and really enjoyed the Texan setting.
My love for this book first and foremost stems from my love of Queenie Wake. Christened “Queen Elizabeth” in her mother’s misguided attempt to give her a better life, Queenie has dealt with her fair share of emotional and psychological trauma over the years. Despite the plethora of reasons that Queenie has for wanting to erase her memories of North Star, it’s painfully clear that she is only just managing at best by living on her own. Self-depreciating and insecure, Queenie has spent over a decade avoiding the ramifications of her youth. And yet it’s clear that Queenie doesn’t want to keep acting this way, that she desperately needs someone to help her move forward (even if she only subconsciously acknowledges that desire). I enjoy reading about relatable yet emotionally tortured protagonists, and my esteem for Queenie was raised all the higher when I learned the reason she is kicked out of her hotel restaurant job: she wouldn’t allow a customer to put ketchup on his eggs.
Queenie’s story is partially told through her interactions with food, from the bottle of water and fig newtons she consumes prior to being fired from her hotel restaurant job in New York to the Number One, her mother’s famous meal - a meal that both Queenie and the people of North Star didn’t even know they missed until Queenie makes it once more. Cooking not only offers Queenie a distraction from life, but it provides her with a purpose. Ironically, it is the job she takes cooking last meals for inmates on death row that helps Queenie regain her passion.
But the story being told is so much bigger than Queenie regaining her own passion for life once more; it’s also about the family bonds between Queenie, her sister Merry Carole, and her nephew Cal. It’s about them accepting how loved ones’ mistakes have affected their own lives. Their mother continues to have an influence on Merry Carole’s and Queenie’s lives in North Star, but not simply their mother is to blame for their pariah-like statuses. While Queenie fled as soon as she could, presumably justifying the idea in many peoples’ minds that she never deserved to live there, Merry Carole has spent the past decade trying to fit in and feign oblivion to the rumors. Neither of their coping mechanisms can work long-term, but it is only by uniting together that Queenie and Merry Carole develop enough strength and resolve to see beyond the ruts they’ve been sunk in for so many years.
This is also the story of the town as a whole, and how the people of North Star, too, have come to fully believe the rumors, the vitriol, and the hopeless of Queenie and Merry Carole’s situation (and, ironically, applied it to their own lives in many ways). The past has literally stagnated the town, and it is only by accepting the past that they can move forward again. Not a novel concept, perhaps, but one that’s still articulated very well within the pages of Nowhere But Home.
Queenie’s job as the lead chef for last meals could have seemed in poor taste at best, contrived and offensive at worst. Fortunately it’s neither. Queenie working as a chef for death row inmates is not simply about her regaining a passion in food, but also developing the ability to humanize her requesters (and, beyond them, the people who have caused harm within her own life). It’s a tough premise to write, but Palmer handles it believably and with great aplomb.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything about this novel that didn’t work for me. It’s poignant and heartwarming, providing important reflections in both the value of individuality and the value of family. Queenie’s story is one I’ll definitely be sharing for years to come.
Rating: 5 stars