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The Good Plain Cook

by Bethan Roberts

THE GOOD PLAIN COOK was a Radio 4 Book at Bedtime and will make a thoroughly good Book Beside the Pool for the summer holidays. It is a brilliant second novel from the winner of the Jerwood/Arven Young writers’ Prize for her debut, THE POOLS.

It is 1936, and Kate Allen, erstwhile kitchen maid, answers an advertisement in the Hants & Sussex Herald for a good plain cook. Kate is a far better needlewoman than a cook, but rural England offers little for unmarried country girls in those days, as the country struggled with the aftermath of World War I, blithely unaware of the threat of Word War II. She becomes involved in the household of a highly unconventional American millionairess, Ellen Steinberg, who is playing at living in the country. Also part of this ménage are Ellen’s lover, George Crane (an obsessive Marxist ‘poet’), Ellen’s daughter, Geenie, aged ten, the dog, Blotto, and the gardener, Arthur. Kate (Kitty) finds herself, at nineteen, out of her depth and at first quite out of sympathy with her new employer. But she feels sorry for the needy little daughter and, intrigued in spite of herself, by the goings-on and, to her own surprise and mystification, fascinated by Ellen’s lover. Finding her feet in this rarified atmosphere is both alarming and at times irresistibly funny: she hardly knows whether to laugh or cry.

The novel was inspired by Bethan Roberts’ visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni, Venice, which is not only a museum but the house where Peggy Guggenheim lived. In 1936 the Guggenheim household, playing at being bohemian communists, moved into a cottage in Harting, Sussex. The story amused and interested Roberts, who has very successfully based her second novel on this unusual tale. THE GOOD PLAIN COOK is written from the point of view of the good plain cook.

Review by Paula McMaster

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