A Review of
Better Food for a Better World: A Novel
Reviewed by Mary Bowling
In Erin McGraw’s novel, Better Food for a Better World, three couples of Californian thirtysomethings who have known each other since college decide to partner up and change the world for the better through ice cream. Natural High: Better Food for a Better World is the name of the shop the six friends take turns running and managing, all while waiting to see the betterment happen around them and in their own lives. Nancy is the originator of the idea and dominant partner who, along with her husband, cows the others into acquiescence. Cecilia and David are a meticulous and meek wannabe musician and agriculturalist, and Vivy and Sam are free-spirited ex-promoters of offbeat talent. While day in and day out Nancy recites the supposedly inspirational mantras of Natural High, the others quietly simmer as they wrestle with the lives they have given up in order to sell ice cream.
McGraw’s characters begin their joint ice-cream effort with noble intentions and seem to believe that they are at least in some sense trying to do their own bit of good in the world. Apparently not content to spend all of their working lives together, the six also belong to a quasi-religious marital support group called Life Ties where they are the longstanding pillars of the group. After five years of strain and very few returns from their frozen dairy venture, the simmering pots begin to boil over, leaving an undeniable mess.
The chapters follow the points of view of Vivy, Sam, and Cecilia variously, with other chapters dealing especially with the view of the Life Ties attendees towards the group. It is during these chapters that we begin to see that it is not only the duty to help and be helped that calls some to continually attend, but the entertainment value of constantly having other people’s dramas played out over and over in front of them that they are attracted to. We also see the different way that each of the couples values the core beliefs of the group:
“We believe that our marriages are the center of our lives. Every choice we make must consider our marriages first, last, and foremost…
Marriage is our first strength, our full humanity, our unique creation. We gather each week to reaffirm our unions, to celebrate our strength, to admit our failings, and to vow to improve.”
The characters try their best to buy into or at least put up with years of living according to icky aphorisms, but when they come to realize that they are actually not the better for it they are left with no way to come to grips with the actuality of their lives. As they each try to achieve separate dreams in the midst of the intensely close situation they exist in, they can’t help but to act in obnoxiously human ways. Vivy, the gregarious one of the bunch, goes full steam ahead with her plan to resurrect her old business. David quietly eyes a new job. Cecilia pines for an avenue to play her violin, Nancy hones her glares, and Sam is seemingly just taken along for the ride. Their conversations are a mishmash of misplaced confidences and careful evasion where friends are sometimes used against spouses. One of Vivy’s old friends is brought into the mix and brings a bit of sweetness and comedy to the heavy situation.
Into a stew of flippant sarcasm, bitterness, earnestness, conniving retaliation, and officiousness the secrets are all eventually pulled out, and the six then become the dramatic objects that they themselves have taken surreptitious pleasure in at countless weekly meetings before. They come to realize that the only resolution then is right through the tangle they all created.
Erin McGraw’s main characters here display a lot of recognizably human susceptibilities which make them relatable, like their idealism played against mounting impatience, but are idiosyncratic and quirky enough to also believably get into one huge mess of a mess. Once they are forced to confront the issues at hand, however, all turns out surprisingly well for each of them, as though all they had to do was admit their real aspirations in order to achieve them.