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The Lady, The Chef, and the Courtesan    by Marisol order for
Lady, The Chef, and the Courtesan
by Marisol
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Softcover

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* *   Reviewed by Liz Cooper

What is it about South American women that makes them so alluring to men and such a mystery to other women? Could it be that they've simply been blessed with good genes? Or is there something more beneath the surface; secrets passed down through generations that enable Latin women to maintain an air of allure and sensual beauty throughout their entire life?

Pilar Castillo is twenty-six years old, and feels trapped between two very different cultures. She was born in Venezuela, a place where her entire family still resides, and where she's expected to return when she finally gets past the 'flight of fancy' that has brought her to America. Yet she likes her new life in Chicago. She has a good job as a business reporter with The Chicago Tribune, and she's dating Patrick Russo, an all-American photographer who is charming and easy-going (her mother heartily disapproves of him). 'Pilar, por Dios, can't you see there's nothing more to him?' her mother would say. In fact, her entire family is pushing her to marry Rafael Uslar a successful, if arrogant and flirtatious, Venezuelan lawyer to whom she was once engaged.

What's a girl to do when she's being pulled in so many different directions? Just as Pilar is starting to feel overwhelmed, another event occurs which makes her question whether she'll be able to get through everything life is throwing her way. Her grandmother Gabriela dies. Pilar and Gabriela were extremely fond of one another: kindred souls who shared a bond through their independence and unwillingness to conform to expectations. Gabriela's last gift to her favorite granddaughter is her legacy: three leather-bound volumes that hold the key to a South American woman's secrets. By reading these diaries, Pilar learns how to be 'a lady in the living room, a chef in the kitchen, and a courtesan in the bedroom'.

The Lady, The Chef, and the Courtesan is elegantly written, full of wit, charm and insight into a culture that still seems frozen in an earlier time. Many lessons can be learned from this book, and although the advice may sound dated at times - 'a husband wandering around the kitchen could signify only one thing: his wife had failed miserably in her duties' it also offers a refreshingly open look at relationships and gender roles. Beneath the words of wisdom and glimpses into Latin culture lies a deeper probing into the nature of all women, their hopes and desires, and the many expectations that are placed around them by their families and society as a whole. Through Gabriela's diaries, readers will come to recognize along with Pilar that being a woman is indeed a rare gift, one that should be cherished. Beauty rituals and feminine secrets are divulged at length throughout the novel, and I often found myself smiling at the ancient wisdom offered in the guise of a fictional account.

Marisol has played many different roles throughout her lifetime, such as those of 'fashion model, banker, belly dancer, chef, aerobics and college language instructor, and most recently, a public relations professional'. Her large variety of experiences, as well as her Venezuelan background gives The Lady, The Chef, and the Courtesan an air of authenticity. This is an eloquent, lyrical novel that shouldn't be missed by any woman wanting a perspective on the secrets to femininity.

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