The All You Can Dream Buffet, by Barbara O'Neal

>> Sunday, April 10, 2016

TITLE: The All You Can Dream Buffet
AUTHOR: Barbara O'Neal

PAGES: 400

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction (I don't like the term "Women's Fiction", but that's really what this is).

Perfect for fans of Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs—Barbara O’Neal’s new novel of food, friendship, and the freedom to grow your dreams brings together four very different women longing to savor the true taste of happiness.

Popular blogger and foodie queen Lavender Wills reigns over Lavender Honey Farms, a serene slice of organic heaven nestled in Oregon wine country. Lavender is determined to keep her legacy from falling into the profit-driven hands of uncaring relatives, and she wants an heir to sustain her life’s work after she’s gone. So she invites her three closest online friends—fellow food bloggers, women of varied ages and backgrounds—out to her farm. She hopes to choose one of them to inherit it—but who?

There’s Ginny, the freckle-faced Kansas cake baker whose online writing is about to lead her out of a broken marriage and into a world of sensual delights. And Ruby, young, pregnant, devoted to the organic movement, who’s looking for roots—and the perfect recipe to heal a shattered heart. Finally, Val, smart and sophisticated, a wine enthusiast who needs a fresh start for her teenage daughter after tragedy has rocked their lives. Coming together will change the Foodie Four in ways they could never have imagined, uniting them in love and a common purpose. As they realize that life doesn’t always offer a perfect recipe for happiness, they also discover that the moments worth savoring are flavored with some tears, a few surprises, and generous helping of joy.
Lavender Wills is worried about her family farm. As a young woman, Lavender escaped life on the farm for an eventful career as a flight attendant, but when she finally returned, much later in her life, she fell in love with it. As she turns 85 she's worried that her only heirs, her nephews, will turn around and sell to a developer as soon as she's gone.

Lavender has embraced technology in running and marketing the farm, and through her blog she has become really good friends with three other food bloggers. Will one of them be the right person to take over the farm instead of her nephews? With her birthday coming up, she decides to invite them over, both to finally meet them in person and to see if one of them has what it takes.

There's Ruby, a young woman who runs a vegan blog and who finds herself pregnant months after a traumatic breakup. There's Ginny, whose cake blog represents an escape from a boring life full of people (including her husband) who want nothing more than to keep her as small and miserable as possible. And there's Valerie, a wine blogger and former dancer still recovering from the death of her husband and two of her children in an accident.

I liked the premise and, initially, I liked where I thought the story seemed to be going. The setting is beautiful and I loved the supportive female friendships. But I had so, so many issues with this book, and in the end, it didn't work for me at all. So the rest of the review is really going to be a litany of complaints.

To start with, for a book that supposedly features an ensemble cast, this was very uneven. O'Neal seemed to be most interested in Ginny (who, to me, was the most tedious character -more on her later), closely followed by Ruby. There was a fair bit about Lavender, as she was basically the catalyst for everything here, but there was pretty much nothing at all about Valerie. As she was written, I really didn't see what the point of having her there was. It might be that there was more in earlier versions and she was cut out in an edit, I don't know. I just know that out of the four characters who are set out to be equal protagonists the only one who doesn't do anything in the story and who's not a point of view character is the black woman. This left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

The focus on Ginny didn't work for me, because she annoyed me. I felt she needed to take a little bit more responsibility for her choices. Yes, her husband was a piece of work, and so were her "friends" and even her mother, but there are limits. There's a point when she goes on about how she feels her husband trapped her into marriage and a life she didn't want when he got her pregnant, and she wouldn't be at all surprised if he'd poked holes in their condoms (to be fair, she's consciously exagerating here). Whoa, hang on. This was the late 80s, early 90s. She had a choice if she didn't want to have a child so young. And every single other year she had a choice to confront things and try to change them. Her husband wasn't abusive or controlling, he was just immensely selfish. And honestly, I really have absolutely no idea what was going on on the sex front. It's not much of a spoiler, so I'll go into details: they haven't had sex in like 12 years, and he's refused to discuss it whenever Ginny's tried to bring it up. But in the end it turns out he's cheated on Ginny while she's been away? Huh?

Ruby was a lot more appealing to me. She's quite a sweet character, someone who had some miserable years as a child, when she became ill with cancer, but what that's done to her is made her very ready to see and appreciate the good things in life. But the break-up (which was unexpected and abrupt) has shaken her confidence a bit, and the time with Lavender and her friend does her good.

Lavender is ok, but the characterisation is shallow, and as I've mentioned, Valerie is paper-thin.

I also had issues with the characterisation of these women as bloggers. That element felt really off. There's a fair bit of WTF, like when Ginny's love interest, whom she meets on the road as she drives to Lavender's, rings her and tells her he was worried about her, so he looked up her phone number in her blog details. Yeah, no, no one with half a brain would put her phone number (not one of those voicemail thingies, either, but her regular mobile number) up on her blog! Then there's the way she refers to people who comment regularly on her blog as "backbloggers", which is a term I've never heard before, and I've been on this scene for 14 years now (google doesn't know the word, either). Those are all details, though.

More importantly, I found it really hard to believe that Ginny's blog would be as successful as it's supposed to be, to the point of her making oodles of money out of it. From what we see of it, it's basically really bland text and pictures of cakes. Even if the pictures are incredibly amazing, I can't see them being that revolutionary. Actually, all three of the blogs that we see (we see nothing of Valerie's, of course) were pretty unappealing to me. Ginny's is bland, as I mentioned. Lavender's is very commercial... paraphrasing here, but it's kind of "Lovely day at the farm today, remember we run tours every Saturday, cost is $X". That's actually fine for what it is, a blog attached to a business, but hardly inspiring. Ruby's I can see being more successful, but the whole emphasis on the health benefits of particular foods is exactly the sort of thing that annoys me... "This recipe uses ingredient X, which is packed full of antioxidants and vitamin whatever". Plus, her recipes didn't sound great, and I'm someone who eats mostly vegan, so I was looking forward to them. She seems to be the kind of vegan cook who takes regular meat- and dairy-based recipes and looks for ways to substitute the meat and dairy. I tend to prefer recipes that are naturally vegan, myself. That's just taste though; like I said, I could see her blog being pretty successful. The other two... hmm, nah.

The other thing that annoyed me was the whole attitude they had to the people who read their blogs. I'm not sure I can quite articulate it, but it was a bit like they're celebrities and the blog readers are their fans. It's that sort of condescending attitude. There was a thing near the end when they're all together when they decide they need to take a picture for their "backbloggers". It's sort of Hello magazine, and their readers are assumed to be desperate to live their lives vicariously through them. I think I might be being a bit harsh with this, but I didn't like it.

MY GRADE: A C-. Only Ruby saves it from a D.


Darlynne 10 April 2016 at 17:44  

OT: I barely made it past "as she turns 85." I ... OK. Forget the rampant sexism at the time, becoming a stewardess was my idea of a fantasy job. In the 60s and 70s, there was nothing more glamorous than flying around the world for (then) Pan Am or Northwest Orient. Those uniforms; the independence; jetting to foreign countries; the publication of COFFEE, TEA OR ME; one entire issue of 'TEEN magazine devoted to stewardesses. *swoon* My unfulfilled dream.

Lavender COULD have been a stewardess in the 40s, but she likely would have been fired when she reached 30+ years of age because those were the rules at the time. One airline requirement was to be a nurse and there was a total ban against being married, which was also a firing offense. Initially, only men were stewards, but that changed dramatically and in 1971, a man had to sue to become one.

What I'm struggling with is why make her a stewardess and 85 years old? I love both ideas, but together they're kind of a stretch, especially considering the history of, now, flight attendants. Was it intended as shorthand to show Lavender as worldly and well-traveled, because that's not how it worked in reality.

I don't expect you to answer those questions and I mention them only to show how those two pieces of information about a character stopped me in my tracks. There was no going forward at that point.

Rosario 11 April 2016 at 06:28  

Darlynne: Oh, my bad! I clearly wrote that first bit in a confusing way. Lavender was a stewardess as a young woman, but later (I don't think they say exactly at what age; I got the feeling in her 30s/40s) she was moved to work in the airline's offices. She worked there for years but didn't like it much, so later (around in her 50s, I think) she went back to the farm and took it over. So at 85 she's been working in the farm for decades!

So yeah, O'Neal gets a lot very, very wrong in this book, but I don't think this bit was that bad! :)

Darlynne 11 April 2016 at 16:24  

I wrote my comment incorrectly, sorry about that. I knew Lavender wasn't a stewardess at age 85, but it was still difficult to think of her being 85 now and a former stewardess, unless her work at the airline occurred a very long time ago. Your explanation makes a lot of sense. Thanks.

Wendy 12 April 2016 at 01:40  

I think I might have this in my TBR somewhere (conference freebie!) and the blogging stuff alone (which would also drive me insane) is enough to put this on the potential weeding list the next time I go diving into my TBR (I've been putting off going through my trade paperback pile...)

Rosario 14 April 2016 at 07:51  

Wendy: It was maddening. Does she know no bloggers she could run this stuff past? Argh!

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