My new novel, What’s Left, opens with her being taken out of her classroom and being told of the death of her father. Well, there’s still a thread of hope, since his body had not been recovered from the avalanche. But the finality weighs in.
What’s an 11-year-old to make of this? She’s been raised in two traditions, each one differing from the mainstream around her.
It’s not the only death in the novel. There’s the tragic collision that kills her grandparents and creates the opening for her father to marry into the family – they no doubt would have thwarted that development. And there are the other ancestors gone by the time Cassia appears on the scene, as well as two uncles who die when she’s too young to understand. But the questions remain.
Some of my favorite answers arise in the 14th chapter. But please remember: no fair peeking ahead.
The subject of death is difficult enough for adults. For children it’s all the more baffling, once they push past the notion of sleeping but not waking.
What’s the earliest funeral you remember? What were you told? What would you say to others?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her great-grandmother Maria could quite possibly take off as big juicy book all her own. Well, I sketch what I can of this most colorful character even when the core of this novel is about Cassia and her grief.
In the arms of Ilias the Cypriot, Maria’s left a seedy past in Havana and found forgiveness and redemption in converting to Orthodox Christianity in Chicago. And then, in the next stage, she’s actively contributing to the lives of her grandchildren down in Indiana, including Cassia’s mother, Diana.
She’s indirectly responsible for inspiring her grandson Barney’s great culinary signature creation, the Streetcar sandwich. I’m not even sure if she’s still around to lend it her approval as it comes out of their ovens.
I’m still surprised I allowed Maria and Ilias to fade out of the picture as they do. Maybe their deaths would have simply been too much to add at that stretch of the story. But they are memorable, aren’t they?
Oh, if only there were figures like them in my family! Oh, now that I’m thinking of it, I can come up with a few. Care to look at the comments in the family cookbook?
Not that we got together that often.
Looking at wider circles, though, the list soon grows.
Who are the most outrageous – and yet loveable – people you know? (Well, I’ll settle on outrageous or loveable. Or even past tense, have known.) What makes them so?
In my new novel, What’s Left, her father (Baba) has an influential role in transforming the family restaurant even though he’s new to the business. But he’s not alone.
Here are some passages I cut from the final version:
Baba is an active participant in that year of intense planning, before heading off for his focused Dharma training, those three years in the Tibetan monastery followed by his permanent return here.
My search reveals to me how much Baba contributed to the final result. As a visual artist addressing challenges beyond the kitchen itself, he’s amplified the wisdom Dimitri displayed in bringing him on board – and all of his touches fill me with pride.
Reflecting on Baba’s contributions to the project, what impresses me most is his sensitivity to the underlying unity. What emerges simply feels right and natural.
In a traditional business school case study, the spotlight would likely fall on Baba’s future brother-in-law, Dimitri.
Her uncle Dimitri, the oldest of three brothers, has Adonis good looks and style to match. He earns a prestigious Masters of Business Administration degree and possesses sharp financial skills. He also advocates radical values in politics and social justice, has taken up Buddhism, and uses astrology to evaluate potential colleagues – as he does in luring Cassia’s future father actively into the family.
In my new novel, What’s Left, she assumes all of this is the way life should be, right up to the tragedies that send her spiraling.
In my original draft and early revisions of What’s Left, I tried to keep her aunt Nita relatively equal among Cassia’s aunts and uncles. This was difficult, since Nita had been an important influence on Cassia’s father, from college all the way up to his disappearance in an avalanche, was Cassia was 11.
There was no avoiding the fact that as Cassia wanted to know more about her father, she’d have to turn to her aunt Nita for answers.
In the ninth revision, though, I decided it was time for Nita to out-and-out become Cassia’s guardian angel, a role she’d fulfilled repeatedly for Cassia’s father. I think it was a brilliant flash, allowing much of the action in the new novel to take place during Cassia’s preteen and teenage years.