Meg, the protagonist of Maria Goodin’s novel Nutmeg, was brought up on whimsical stories told to her by her cookery-obsessed mother, Valerie – stories of being bitten by crab cakes, and floating to the ceiling with the lightness of her home-baked meringues. Now, Meg is 21 and having renounced fairy tales following derision in the school playground, is studying genetics and in a relationship with lecturer and doctoral student Mark. She returns home from university, upon learning that her mother is ill with cancer and has little time to live, though she won’t admit it. Doubting what her mother has told her about their earlier life, Meg sets about trying to find out more about her father and her childhood.
The plot is interesting enough, though somewhat clouded over by significant questions about the practicality of Valerie’s livelihood. It’s not clear how she can afford to do wonderful home cooking for others without having any apparent source of income. Without wanting to get bogged down in boring details of the practical niceties of the character’s life, it feels like laziness on Goodin’s part to simply ignore the issue altogether.
Meg, Valerie and the gardener-cum-love interest Ewan are, with intentional blandness, best described as nice. While you wouldn’t wish anything bad to befall them, their characters are not well drawn enough to really get involved in the story. Mark comes closest to provoking any emotional reaction in the reader, and it’s not a positive one. Ever the scientist, he pushes Meg to deal with the practical issues relating to her mother’s illness and denial, and to rush forward, all guns blazing, in her search for answers about her past. His lack of empathy towards Meg’s situation stretches the limits of credibility.
That said, the book is not unenjoyable. It’s easy to read, with some mildly amusing passages in the mix, but what distracts is the clunky, jarring awkwardness of some of the writing, particularly towards the end. Goodin doesn’t shy away from awkward cliches – on realising that her mother, whom Meg thought was completely isolated from her neighbours, was in fact widely adored, embarrassingly trite phrases such as “it seems that love and friendship are blossoming all over the street” start to creep in.
If you’re looking for a safe read which won’t take up too much time or emotional brain space then give Nutmeg a go. Otherwise, don’t worry much about missing out.
Image: Legend Press.