There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Every now and then, it does the brain good to settle down with a mass-market best-seller to read without excessive thought. If you’re in need of some simple, relaxing entertainment for a literary spring break, All the President’s Menus is a sure bet.
The latest in a cuisine-themed crime mystery series set at the White House, this roman à clef has been preceded by a slew of gag-worthy puns for titles: State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, Eggsecutive Orders, Buffalo West Wing, Affairs of Steak, Fonduing Fathers, and Home of the Braised. In Hyzy’s latest creation, by chapter two, the action has snapped into place with White House pastry chef Marcel’s dramatic collapse. In the kitchen where he and executive chef (and part-time sleuth) Olivia Paras work, they share space with four foreign cooks from the imaginary and somewhat hostile country of Saardisca. That nation is having its first election with a serious challenger, and this female underdog is touring the U.S. to visit the president. Olivia’s skeleton crew has been whittled to two due to the sequester, and she’s irked by her visitors’ misogyny (they hail from a society even more harshly patriarchal than our own); meanwhile, Marcel is certain he’s been drugged, and one of the visiting cooks dies a sudden death.
This plot interlaces with scenes from Olivia’s perfect marriage to Secret Service agent Gav—and while the counterpoint is good for pacing, their conjugal felicity stretches credulity. An occasional dispute might have brought this marital heaven closer to earth, though the knowledge that before they became a couple, they detested each other, helps a bit.
The book’s minor characters—some bossy, some snotty, one officious assistant as obnoxious as they come—are never really developed as more than thumbnail sketches, but they keep the plot rolling. Those insufferable personalities are what you get from life in the White House, with staffers all worried about their careers and bulky Secret Service agents blocking every door. It doesn’t come across as a particularly fun place to work, much less live, which is why the scenes at Olivia’s apartment, even with her rather incredibly perfect relationship, are such a respite. Normalcy at last. No more tension of some career-climbing assistant popping in to make impudent, hostile remarks.
Because in the end, this novel is about working as a palace courtier, and it doesn’t make it seem like an enviable job. While many are fans of this series precisely because it so closely renders the infighting and territoriality of the president’s inner court, others may come away with relief at not having to rub shoulders with the high and mighty and their hangers-on. Perhaps Hyzy intended this, or perhaps not, but as her chef heroine cooks and sleuths in the shadow of the most powerful man in the world and his staff, her readers finish with a new appreciation of the normal, the mundane, the modest, and the unobtrusive.