Reviewed by Melissa Frederick
Jessica Fechtor is astonishingly lucky. At age twenty-eight, during an early morning workout, she felt something pop inside her head. In seconds, she was lying on the floor, vomiting, suffering from what turned out to be an aneurysm. As doctors worked to save her life and later to restore her body to functionality, Fechtor began using her love of food and cooking to buoy her through wave after wave of physical and psychological changes. Fechtor’s memoir Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home tells the story of the human body’s amazing capacity to mend itself, the part that food plays in nourishing physical and spiritual brokenness, and the central role of community in healing and preparing for an unknowable future.
Or at least, that’s what this memoir could have been. Mostly, the book celebrates food. The author’s journey from injury to wholeness seems more like an afterthought, or maybe a convenient framework around which to assemble a collection of recipes. As a love note to all things edible, Stir works to a certain extent. But as an exploration of trauma, the book is rather disappointing.
I should back up and say that I have a special interest in Fechtor’s story. Seventeen years ago, when I was a graduate student, I also found myself in the middle of a catastrophic health event. In my case, a blood clot mysteriously formed in a vein behind my right ear. One of the reasons I was so eager to read Stir was the fact that Fechtor’s story reminded me so much of my own. And in her first few chapters, Fechtor paints a vivid, sometimes excruciating picture of a brain in the process of breaking. She gives readers access to everything she experiences in the hospital: the wires, tubes, constant neurological checks, groans of other patients, and the bizarre curiosity that takes over when you’re dropped into an alien, mechanized environment. I can personally vouch for these passages. They’re so spot-on they gave me flashbacks. Other descriptions of the aneurysm and its aftermath—her sense that something was trickling in her skull, the pain from excess bleeding pouring down her spine—made me want to clutch my own head. Without a doubt, the ability to produce head-clutching prose is a testament to Fechtor’s skills as a writer.
In the same way, details in the chapters that focus on cuisine are powerful and surprising. It’s clear that the author has thought deeply about food—and not just food itself but attitudes toward food, kitchen culture, cooking, and even ways of eating. This careful reflection helps her build what’s almost a culinary mythology in her work. Even in recipe instructions, the tiniest element—an orange slice, a kidney bean, the consistency of challah or pie-crust dough—sparkles under Fechtor’s eye. The sheer amount of energy she puts into describing alimentary delights places her passion as a writer squarely in the food world.
And herein lies the problem: a cookbook can hang together as a series of beautiful, memorable descriptions, but a memoir has to have a story. Unfortunately, as soon as the crisis of fixing the aneurysm is over, the story of Fechtor’s broken brain falls flat. There’s no sense of suspense or tension in the recovery discussion—new health hurdles keep appearing, but mostly they’re resolved in short order. No major conflicts show up between Fechtor and the people in her life, either. In fact, the people around Fechtor all seem to be saints. They stay with her and cook for her, and sometimes she cooks for them. And everything works out.
To me, not only is this not compelling, it doesn’t even seem realistic. Health problems of all kinds put a terrible strain on all sorts of lives. I don’t buy that Fechtor’s recuperation went by with such little complication. Even if it did, though, there has to be some perspective brought to bear on the process of surviving a major illness. In Fechtor’s memoir, we get no philosophical meditation, no historical context, no broad sense of how the cycle of her injury and healing speaks to the human condition. We just basically have recipes, and a love of food, and a sense that everything works out.
I realize that trying to combine a sickness memoir with a cookbook is a risky move on any writer’s part. I understand, too, that because of my history I’m probably biased in my reading of her work. Still, as much as I love experiments with genre, and as much as I love to eat, Fechtor’s book ultimately leaves me hungry.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars