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Bars and restaurants provide good settings for comedy—witness the success of the 1980s sitcom Cheers, and both Friends and Seinfeld loved a public eatery scene. What’s true for the screen also holds true for books, as demonstrated by D.C.-based author Jennifer Close’s new novel, Marrying the Ketchups. This story of the Sullivan family and their eponymous restaurant in Chicago zips from one-liner to one-liner, with well-drawn and humorous characters. It makes for enjoyable reading.
Three central millennials share one thing besides family: Their love lives are disasters. As they recover from various breakups, acts of cheating, and a failed marriage, they gravitate to Sullivan’s, their grandfather’s Oak Park restaurant that their parents now manage. Before uprooting to Chicago, Gretchen Sullivan is in a New York band. Describing it, one of her bandmates says, “‘It gives us more time for our own artistic pursuits.’ By ‘artistic pursuits,’ Gretchen could only imagine he meant getting stoned and watching cartoons.” Which is what she does, too. Suffice it to say, before she returns to Chicago, her life is a mess.
Then there’s her cousin Teddy, whose boyfriend just ditched him and who now mopes around with his pals. At one point, his disdain falls upon a friend’s partner: “Cindy’s boyfriend had the personality of dry toast, but Teddy tried to be charitable.” Teddy spends a lot of time contemplating Cindy’s boyfriend Brad’s limitations. “That Brad had made it to his thirties without understanding the function of a shower curtain was extremely upsetting.” Whenever the narrator gets inside Teddy’s head, the zingers start to fly, but the same holds true for his cousins.
Jane, on the other hand, is the cousin who did everything right. She finished college, married her boyfriend, bought a house in the Chicago suburbs, and had two kids. And then everything falls apart. Much of Marrying the Ketchups concerns Jane’s collapse, and the message is clear: No one can escape the lousy vagaries of life. “Maybe this is what the divorce expert means by ups and downs,” Jane muses midway through the novel. “Maybe she means learning that you are living with a stranger who doesn’t appear to be a nice person and wondering how you could’ve made such a huge and horrible mistake.” Throughout the book, Jane is continuously faced with the discovery of what it is like for life to work out badly. At another point, Jane offers, “It turns out that being separated from your husband feels like you are constantly five minutes away from starting your period.”
Other characters lurk in the wings for occasional cameos: Rose, the grandmother, who has been rather unceremoniously dumped in assisted living, which she hates; Jane and Gretchen’s parents, who run the restaurant along with Teddy’s mother; Riley, Teddy’s sardonic, teenage half sister, as well as the bartender, chef, and others who work at Sullivan’s and the cousins’ assorted friends. Mostly the narrator sticks to the three 30-somethings who, in addition to their personal problems, have been shocked into a near frenzy, as most Democrats were, by the 2016 election results. That’s when the story takes place, and Trump’s incoming presidency looms over everyone like an advancing tornado.
The characters’ frantic fears about how they will survive under Trump still seem relevant, though most people and even the government survived—even though he did try to overthrow it.
To get over being dumped, Gretchen tries online dating and suffers the consequences: As the narrator notes, she keeps “getting matched with her friend’s uncle, who was 65 years old and deceased.” Meanwhile Teddy invents extravagant lies to conceal hooking up with his ex. “Gretchen didn’t bother asking him why he was lying, because she really didn’t care. He probably wanted to organize his spices or hand-wash all of his cashmere.” Everybody bounces off everybody else at the restaurant—dealing with each other’s highs and lows—and no one manages to keep a secret for long. For those readers who have worked in food service, that really is verisimilitude.
In Marrying the Ketchups, some relationships die, but new ones start. At times serious, it’s basically a light-hearted novel, in which all the endings, even the funerals, are somehow fun. But that’s what you’d expect of a restaurant story where how to pair up half-empty ketchup bottles resonates in all its characters’ lives.
Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close is available from Knopf publishing. penguinrandomhouse.com. $28.