Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 336 pages; $24).
Fourteen year old Lorca listens intently to a conversation between her mother, Nancy, and her Aunt Lou. “What is the best thing you’ve ever eaten?” her aunt asks. “Masgouf,” Nancy answers, “from an Iraqi restaurant that’s closed now.” Nancy proclaims masgouf, the national dish of Iraq, “heaven.”
In Jessica Soffer’s lush, flavorful debut, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, food evokes memories of what is lost and of what can never be again. Like masgouf, for instance, or “carp, typically from the Euphrates or Tigris, pulled out of the water, grilled on the banks and prepared with lemon and tamarind and tomatoes.” However, Islamic leaders placed a fatwah on the fish because of all the dead bodies in the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. As Soffer laments, “Baghdad is not what it once was. All the Jews are gone. Their experience of eating masgouf as they once did is very much over.”
In Soffer’s skilled hands, recipes and food become symbols in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. Lorca, starved for her mother’s affection, calls her mother a “cold war” and an “enigma, fickle, unknowable, like a giant fish.” Nancy is not like most mothers; instead, she only loves Lorca in “fits and spurts,” “warm in flickers and then very cold.”
Only one thing makes Nancy, a chef, happy, and that is food. Lorca prepares a myriad of dishes in hopes of garnering her mother’s attention. Nothing works. When Lorca was 6, she burned her hands while making a birthday cake for her mother. Lorca imagines “that if my mother had just taken out the ice pack, tucked it into a towel, and held me on her lap, rocking me, whispering in my hair, cooling my fingers, things would have been different.” But Nancy did none of those things.
Lorca’s yearning for her mother is only lessened through acts of self-harm. So she does them again and again and again. Her urge to injure herself is “constant…like a band of moths stuck between the screen and the window” but in her “chest instead.” Lorca welcomes the sweet agony of pain. Caught in a dangerous downward spiral, Lorca has been suspended from school for self-cutting when Soffer opens the story.
The masgouf gives Lorca renewed hope. If she can learn how to prepare masgouf, then perhaps the dish will bring her and her mother closer together. “Bukra fil mish mish,” (“Tomorrow, apricots may bloom”) she hopes. Her mother’s wistful recollection of the masgouf compels Lorca to seek out the husband and wife who once owned the Iraqi restaurant.
It is here that Soffer introduces her other main character, Victoria. Like Lorca, Victoria is hungry for companionship. She is a widowed Jew from Iraq, whose husband, Joseph, recently passed away. Joseph’s death left a hole in Victoria’s heart; she grieves for him and also for the daughter they gave up for adoption many years ago. Victoria agrees to teach Lorca, an almost-orphan, cooking lessons. Before long, recipes and food bridge the gap between their different generations and different cultures. Both characters strongly believe that they share a deeper connection.
Soffer tells her tale in the alternating voices of Lorca and Victoria, incredibly well-drawn and vivid narrators. But Soffer knows the best dishes come from a mix of ingredients so she changes it up a bit by incorporating Joseph’s point of view. Joseph’s voice provides a new and unexpected window into the story and into the characters. Soffer further amazes by creating interesting minor characters and subplots that further enhance the novel. One of the strengths of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is the way Soffer effectively puts us into the heads of her main characters.
Food is supposed to provide sustenance and sometimes comfort. But the body craves things other than nutrients. We all need love, attention, and companionship. There is such longing within the pages of Soffer’s story—longing for affection, for the past, for a different present, and for a future that can never be again. Like food, life can be sweet and sometimes life can be sour. Sometimes you burn the meatloaf or the shakrlama and sometimes it comes out perfect. Sometimes we have to make do with the ingredients at hand.
Writing is part of Soffer’s family history. Her grandfather was a scribe in Baghdad, her father was a sculptor and painter, and Soffer is a novelist. Interestingly, “Soffer,” means “scribe” in Arabic. Soffer is a born and gifted storyteller whose debut is good enough to eat.