The Seattle Times

January 24, 2004
GOING TO BEND

By Wingate Packard
Special to The Seattle Times

Tale of small-town life warming as a cup of soup

A new soup cafe is being established in Hubbard, a fictional small town on
the Oregon coast, and longtime friends Petie and Rose win the audition to
get their soups on the menu. Soon, the two women are cooking together
every day, and this plucky first novel by Tacoma writer Diane Hammond,
"Going to Bend" (Doubleday, $23.95), pans out to take a look at this
tourist trap on Highway 101, bleak after a summer of traffic, now full of
loggers, fishermen, mill workers and waitresses, people scrambling to get
by.

We get the perspectives of Petie, who has two young sons and a stale
marriage to Eddie; and Rose, who has an adolescent daughter and a seasonal man (when he is home from dangerous fishing expeditions). While Rose is serene and comfy and curvy, Petie is scrawny, feisty and suspicious, with a heart of gold and a mouth of trash. Despite the possibilities for cliched characterization, the women's exchanges and dependence on each other in parenting and adult relationships make the friendship vivid.

There is also the anxious perspective of Nadine and Gordon, the twins who have arrived in Hubbard from Los Angeles to start the new cafe, Souperior's. They have fled the big city for small-town entrepreneurship, but it soon becomes clear in this early 1990s setting that Gordon is ill with AIDS, and this is a way for the brother and sister to take control of the end of his life.

In order to drum up business and put their cafe on the tourist map, Nadine and Gordon decide to produce a cookbook of soups served at Souperior's. Rose agrees to write out her recipes.

Meanwhile, Ron Schiffen ("Schiff"), manager of the local Pepsi distributorship, has taken an interest in Petie. He spends a lot of energy trying to seduce her, but they wind up just talking about their pasts. And the past is very painful for Petie, whose mother died when she was 9. The child of an alcoholic and sexually abusive father, Petie has flashbacks that spotlight who in town didn't know that she was suffering, and who helped her.

Schiff is a well-drawn character, a man trying not to be a caricature. He showers pick-up lines and innuendoes on Petie, but surprises himself when he gets beyond that to actual self-expression, while Petie listens. These two characters talk themselves into new places in their lives by expressing where they have been.

Hammond depicts a place and a community with a fine eye for the details of small-town life. When Nadine and Gordon first arrive from California, the locals are standoffish, but "an invitation to compete against your neighbors didn't come along often," so they welcome the soup competition and the opening of the new cafe. Eddie, Petie's husband, wears his belt buckle "like a hood ornament" and Schiff wears the uncomfortable flashy boots — given to him by his crabby wife when he was in the doghouse — "like a hair shirt."

Where the book weakens is when the author's design for a happy ending
becomes most apparent. While Rose is working on the recipes for the
cookbook, Gordon mentions the need for small, simple illustrations, and
Rose's declaration that Petie is a doodler who is just right for the job
seems convenient to the plot, rather than an outgrowth of Petie's
character. This, and the ways that minor characters are shifted around in
the end to open up steady futures for Petie and Rose, seem a little contrived.

But Hammond gains back that ground when she develops with complexity
Petie's suspicions about the relationship between Rose's boyfriend and her
daughter; she wrestles with her own terrible experience, and her desire to
see Rose happy. This is not neatly tied up.

Hammond excels with snappy dialogue, and has written a humorous, moving and lively novel of friendship and healing.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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