If you boiled down the plot of Steven Raichlen’s charming debut novel, Island Apart, to a sentence or two, it would read like a cliched soap opera: Woman loses husband, gets cancer, finds love again through dinners with a mysterious stranger. But Raichlen, an experienced food writer (his Barbeque Bible has sold 4 million copies), is so dextrous with words that the book becomes a captivating, fun, poignant tale.
The setup: Book editor Claire Doheney’s world collapses when she is diagnosed with breast cancer and also learns that her professor husband has been serially cheating on her for years. Claire retreats to her friends’ “cottage” (i.e. amazing house) on Martha’s Vineyard for a year to pull her life back together both physically and emotionally. One day while riding her bicycle, she collapses, weak from chemo. Claire is rescued by the Hermit, a strange, solitary man who has lived on Chappaquiddick for as long as the locals can remember. The Hermit never talks to anyone, and no one knows quite where he lives; but when he sees Claire bloody on the road he carries her into town for help.
A few weeks later, Claire wants to thank the Hermit, so she follows him into the woods. Figuring out where he lives, she leaves a note and invites him to dinner. Claire is a big foodie, and it turns out, so is the Hermit. Of course, he has a story to tell about his past; and slowly, romance is kindled. The sweet and quirky love story is only enhanced by Raichlen’s mouthwatering food descriptions—it’s best not read this one while hungry.