Writer Kate Christensen sits alone in the front row amid a cluster of empty chairs, reviewing notes before a reading from her PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel, The Great Man. Behind a podium at Bass Hall in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the author discusses her MFA experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the five year writing slump that followed in New York, and her experience writing The Great Man in the throes of separation from her husband while living in a basement in Queens. She speaks as though she has nothing to hide, and knows that there is no use hiding it anyway, because it is about to be published.
At first glance, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites looks like another food-related work of non-fiction (a la The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but Christensen makes it clear that her memoir is not only about food or the author herself, but appetites—a broader, more intangible subject. Food is the context within which Christensen frames her life story; food as a way into the past, to better conjure up memories.
There is a statement in the prologue that anyone with half the amount of life experience wouldn’t be able to get away with: “to taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule.” This sets the bar of expectations high, commencing with a fantastic and heartbreaking tale of Christensen’s upbringing in a single parent household, her travels alone as a young woman, and her marriage to a painter in New York—all of which she describes with a digestible brashness that keeps the story moving along, and most importantly, makes it believable and relatable despite the unusual circumstances of her life. Christensen was either gifted or cursed with an eventful upbringing, and whichever it is, it’s irrelevant, because the way she writes is what’s compelling. In clear and honest prose, she exposes herself fearlessly, reveals the celebratory and shameful moments of her life in equal measure alongside confessions that most might bring to the grave. She doesn’t romanticize her life or the events in it, nor does she describe it in a removed, overly-expository manner. She writes honestly and critically with doses of understated humor, such as this reflection on an ex-boyfriend: “From our first encounter, we became embroiled in a psychodramatic welter of dissonance and incompatibility and thermonuclearly hot sex.” She is extremely self-aware and analytical, almost heartbreakingly so: “He’d married me in part because he loved my wild side, and I’d married him in part because I loved his stable, conventional side…Unfortunately, these were the qualities in ourselves we most wanted to leave behind.”
Christensen’s memoir is attentive to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters, realizing that their existence and experience is just as real and valid: “Jon was so good to me, so loyal and kind and generous and devoted. He did not deserve to have his marriage end.” There is no victim mentality or martyrdom here. The author takes responsibility for her actions and decisions, is aware of patterns (“to put a good face on things in a Pollyannaish way, that lifelong habit of mine”) and claims her downfalls (“I became unhinge, unmoored, ungrounded”), and that is what keeps the reader rooting for her, even if she doesn’t learn from her mistakes or buries herself deeper in a well of her own undoing.
What makes Kate Christensen’s literary memoir a great read is the strength, resilience, and relatability of the main character. You feel like she’s right there with you, cooking soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast and retelling the vivid memory of her father beating her mother at the breakfast table when she was two-years-old. Christensen’s writing transports the reader, and like a good meal, I devoured the book quickly and savored the memory of it for days.