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‘Family Meal’ Review: A Cluttered but Compelling Insight into Relationships

3 Stars

Cover of Bryan Washington's "Family Meal."
Cover of Bryan Washington's "Family Meal." By Courtesy of Penguin Random House
By Audrey Limb, Contributing Writer

Not all ghost stories are spooky. Sometimes they’re just sad. In Bryan Washington’s sophomore novel “Family Meal,” protagonist Cam navigates the messy, haunted aftermath of his lover Kai’s traumatic death. His wit and brutal honesty prompt grins, eyebrow raises, and an abundance of emotional pangs as the reader is confronted by the challenges of familial relationships. “Family Meal” is ambitious in its attempt to unpack numerous social injustices at once. Nevertheless, food as a love language ties the fragmented narration together, making it a thoughtful and emotionally demanding read.

“Family Meal” opens with Cam’s side of the story. Haunted by Kai’s ghost, he numbs himself to the outside world and wreaks havoc on his relationships. Even more emotional wounds burst open as he reenters the life of his hometown best friend — and former partner — TJ. Both men crave connection, but they struggle to move beyond the secrets and betrayals of their past.

From the very first page of the novel, Washington’s dry humor shines through. Snappy one-liners like “my parents died — in a car accident, clipped by a drunk merging onto I-45, I’d just turned fifteen, cue cellos” comprise much of Cam’s internal dialogue. His external dialogue with others is no different, which is charming — until it becomes repetitive and makes him difficult to root for.

A brief interlude from Kai’s perspective further challenges Cam’s likeability as a character by revealing their parallel struggles about their sexualities. As TJ takes over the narration, the reader despairs as all three sides try in vain to detangle themselves from each other. The switches between perspectives allow the novel to span multiple countries, timelines, and histories at once, but they risk making the overall flow of the book choppy and disjointed.

The book also omits quotation marks around all spoken dialogue. While this simplistic formatting creates seamless transitions between the characters’ thoughts and external interactions, the lack of visual cues is at times jarring for the reader.

Even more jarring is the book’s normalization of social stereotypes, especially those regarding racial stratifications in the queer community. According to a recent interview with Washington in “The New Yorker,” “Family Meal” set out to challenge what Washington sees as a primary obstacle for queer fiction in the United States.

“Queerness is allowed, so to speak, only if it can be masked by literally anything else,” Washington said.

Cam’s assumptions about characters’ sexuality such as “straight white women touring the gayborhood” certainly do not mask the open queerness Washington is going for, but they may surprise the reader with their blunt cynicism and almost mocking tone. Furthermore, masking Cam’s prejudices with his queerness seems no better than masking queerness with other social issues in an attempt to be palatable to wider audiences. The narration then veers away from the delicate intersectionality of race, sexuality, and gender identity just as quickly, which may leave readers confused and potentially offended.

This scattered treatment of social issues plagues the novel throughout. Mirroring its choppy syntax, the book hops from one deeply sensitive topic to another in an effort to connect with every possible reader. For instance, it name-drops police violence, the controversy over post-pandemic masking, and the political polarization around global warming all in just ninety pages, never dedicating sufficient space to any one topic. While it is admirable to open up conversation about such issues, merely checking them off a grocery list does each one a disservice. “Family Meal” thus fails to choose its battles appropriately in the vast realm of social justice.

What does land, though, is the humanity of the novel’s characters. None of them know how to communicate the intensity of their love, pain, and heartache to one another. Suppressed emotions come to the forefront in conversations so awkward and messy that the reader feels embarrassed for intruding. But when TJ word-vomits years of built-up angst and conflicted love to Cam, readers will sigh out in their own cathartic release, instantly bonding to the characters’ humanity.

Unlike TJ, however, most of the characters never succeed at expressing their emotions and needs through words. Instead, they do so through food. Cam silently cooks for his friends in exchange for their hospitality when he has nowhere to turn. When he and TJ cannot bring themselves to discuss past trauma aloud, they simply bake comfort dishes together in TJ’s family bakery. Over time, offering and accepting food from others propels each character a little closer to healing. TJ’s self-consciousness of his lunches of “kimbap and ham sandwiches and tupperwares of kimchi and burritos” also encapsulates the book’s refreshing take on cultural identity. It is normal to have a multifaceted identity, and it is even more normal to be unsure of it.

As a prominent columnist for the New York Times Cooking subscription, Washington is a master at bringing descriptions of food to life, off the pages and into the reader’s taste buds. “Family Meal” is no different. Washington effortlessly portrays cooking and dining as a dance between the characters, their strained relationships, and their struggles to redefine love in light of tragedy. Though hindered by its desire to cover too many social issues at once, “Family Meal” gets the chaotic ingredients of human relationships and (mis)communication just right.

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