Wherever You Go (Pilyara Press 2020), Monique Mulligan’s debut novel, is a story of romance and friendship, heartbreak and hope, guilt and grief. A light and easy to read book featuring food at its heart, it also traverses deeper themes as two people attempt to save their marriage and find themselves – both individually and as a couple – after a terrible tragedy.
While some of the narrative is pleasantly and reliably predictable, there are characters with richly-explored histories, some genuine exploration of grief and loss, and some caricatured but nevertheless humorous vignettes about the characters peopling small towns.
Amy Bennet has suffered a life-changing tragedy and she moves with her husband Matt to the country town of Blackwood, where nobody knows who they are or what they have experienced, in the hope that they can start again and save their fragile relationship. Matt has a new job, and chef Amy opens a local café and forms an Around the World Supper Club, bringing mouth-watering food to her new-found friends. But eventually they both realise that shame, grief and guilt cannot simply be left behind but will follow them wherever they go. A literal Pandora’s Box of loss proves to be a heavy weight, and as both of them try to cope in their own ways with what has happened, and what they’ve tried to leave behind, their marriage begins to crumble under the pressure of their different approaches to grief. When Matt gives Amy an ultimatum about their future, she must face her worst fears and her most tragic memories.
Many of the characters in this book, not only Matt and Amy, have suffered loss or grief or heartache of some kind, and the book as a whole explores how different people cope (or don’t cope) with difficult circumstances. As the narrative progresses, the reader uncovers more of the backstories and secrets of other minor characters, which goes some way to explaining their behaviour. And as the complex story of Matt and Amy’s past is revealed, their complicated feelings also become easier to recognise and understand. It helps that we’re given the story from the perspectives of both Matt and Amy, as well as their neighbour Irene, a lovely older character who has her own pain and issues to deal with.
Wherever You Go takes more than a superficial look at the long reach of grief, and the cracks and faults it can produce. It offers up an examination of distress but also explores the characters’ processes of recovery and self-forgiveness. While some readers might find the metaphors a tad belaboured, others will revel in the predictability of the form: a story of two people finding themselves, and each other, and dealing with their past trauma; circumstances that will no doubt resonate with many readers.
While the book does deal with some difficult circumstances, it is ultimately a hopeful and uplifting story that provides the reader with a satisfying and optimistic resolution.
The other noticeable stand-out in this book is the food. Amy’s recipes and culinary creations are mouth-wateringly good. The entire novel is filled with lush, rich descriptions of a variety of different cuisines, especially once Amy begins the Around the World Supper Club, which focuses on a menu from a different country each time they meet. Greek, French and Vietnamese food are only some of the scrumptious deliciousness depicted, and I guarantee you will be hungry most of the time you are reading! Mulligan includes a couple of recipes at the back, and I’ve heard her talk about possibly compiling a companion cookbook, which I think would go down a real treat! The author is certainly a foodie and her love for ingredients, the process of cooking and preparing food, and the finished result is obvious. In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Chocolat by Joanne Harris and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Narratives that intertwine falling in love with the nurturing act of cooking, offering and consuming food are common; there is something about that combination that creates a satisfying and comforting read.