The Arabic expression Bukra fil mish mash, loosely translated as when pigs fly, or forget it, unless you believe the impossible can happen, was the inspiration, Jessica Soffer says, for her debut novel, Tomorrow There Will be Apricots (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Also translated as “tomorrow the apricots will bloom,” the proverb takes on a more promising connotation as the narrative develops, suggesting that longed-for hope just might trump despair, at least in fantasy. Such is the strength of Soffer’s moving, beautifully conceived and written quest for family that the reader hopes that faith and love will prevail over a history of pain and adversity. It’s exemplary of the author’s professionalism that though her characters move toward some peace and understanding, their deep inner conflicts are left unresolved.
Soffer, who has an MFA from Hunter College and teaches fiction at Connecticut College, has been published in numerous periodicals, among them Vogue, The New York Times and Granta. The girl at the center of Apricots appeared first in a short story about a highly sensitive, intelligent, lonely teenager who continually cuts and burns herself because of the lack of a relationship with her mother, “a kind of villain,” but Lorca’s evolution in the novel also has to do with an “image” that popped into Soffer’s head one day—“a young girl and an old woman cooking together, barefoot.” Although the book is on the longish side, it might be said that it’s extended dilation on the theme of yearning out of loneliness—an adolescent girl’s for her mother’s love, and an older woman’s for her dead husband and for a child she gave up 40 years earlier—gives the story the breadth it needs to advance the theme in subtly tragic and humorous ways, and make it credible.
Such things can happen, if the need is strong enough: strangers separated by a wide age difference come together because of a traditional but elusive national Iraqi dish—Masgouf—and they come to believe, they want to believe, they are related in other ways as well. Lorca, a precocious 14-year-old (Williams Sonoma has the best knives for cutting herself), named by her father for the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, wants desperately to learn how to make Masgouf because she has heard her mother say she loved it. Victoria, in her 80s, is mourning the recent loss of her husband Joseph, who was her “all in all.” Lorca and Victoria alternate first-person chapters, each infusing their stream of consciousness with imagery about food. Both are excellent cooks. Joseph, with whom Victoria once ran a well regarded restaurant—one of the specialties was Masgouf—also has chapters, but these are in the third person. Each chapter refines what’s come before, with every character expressing the need, the desire and the anguished passion for affection, particularly young Lorca. Her beautiful, brilliant mother, narcissistic and cruel, a celebrated chef who has cast off her “wimp” of a husband, is planning to ship Lorca off to boarding school to deal with her problem.
As each character inhabits the theme of longing for family, the reader readjusts perspective, though it’s only at the end when full truths emerge. Other characters include the lonely, sensitive 19-year Blot, who works in a bookstore, on whom Lorca has a crush. He, too, has a troubled life, but he reaches out to Lorca, unaware for a while of the extent of her self-mutilations. In the Victoria chapters, Dottie, an upstairs neighbor, first seen only as a busybody, takes on greater complexity as well. It’s impressive the way Soffer crafts so many figures who enhance the theme but keeps the focus on her quartet—Lorca, Victoria, Joseph and Blot whose individual discordant sounds gel into an unexpected, deeply affecting harmony.
Masgouf, a fish dish originally prepared on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, and grilled with tamarind and lemon and other spices, may be gone but it’s not forgotten. The recipe, along with others for Shakrlama, a dessert the author recalls from Passover dinners, and Bamia, a tomato and okra-based spice dish often eaten with meat dumplings, are included at the end, all “From the kitchen of Jessica Soffer.” Food for thought, indeed.