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Kate Christensen finds comfort in 'Blue Plate Special'

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Picking up "Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites" (Doubleday, $26.95) is a little like having Kate Christensen sit down next to you in a bar and hearing her life story. The novelist — author of "The Astral" and the PEN/Faulkner-winning "The Great Man" — publishes her first nonfiction book in July, a memoir.

In a bar, you wouldn't get her recipes, however. They appear in the book and are built for comfort, from the Bachelorette Puttanesca to the Dark Night of the Soul Soup.

"My 50th birthday approaching felt like a big milestone to me," Christensen says by phone from her house in Maine. "I've lived half a century. If I write about food and use my life as a fulcrum to move the story along, maybe I've lived long enough to fashion a narrative that has a happy ending."

Christensen grew up in the 1960s and '70s in an environment that was by turns fairly average and entirely atypical. She was the eldest of four sisters born to a lawyer father and a mother who was studying to be a psychologist. But most lawyers don't work with the Black Panthers, as her father did, and most suburban upbringings don't have the fervor and spark of Berkeley in the 1960s, where her family lived.

Although she portrays that environment with the awe and admiration she felt as a child, the book begins with something much darker: Christensen's earliest memory, of her father striking her mother. Eventually, there was divorce, a move to Arizona and her mother cooking traditional American blue-plate special meals of mashed potatoes, meatloaf, French-cut string beans.

"The phrase 'blue plate special' has always been one of the homiest, coziest, most sweetly nostalgic phrases in the English language for me," Christensen writes. "It brings me right back... to that time in my childhood when I had my mother and my sisters all to myself; we were a complete family then, just us four girls, living in a wild, strange place, making a home for ourselves."

From there, the book follows Christensen's unusual path chronologically: Independent and strong-willed, she moves away to high school, heads to Europe instead of college and begins to write. She is unguarded when it comes to showing her own faults, admitting when she is bossy or makes selfish choices, but occasionally draws the curtain on the details of her love life.

As with many writers, Christensen was drawn to New York City, where she married an artist, a relationship that eventually collapsed. Yet even when they were separating, she and her husband enjoyed eating together — often crying in restaurants, finding a shared consolation in food.

"I worried that no one was going to relate, that I was too weird and my life was too weird... the choices I made as a grown-up, not having kids, having an unconventional marriage," she says now. As the book has made it to the hands of pre-publication reviewers and readers, she's found that many people connect to her story; most have, at some point, stepped away from the conventional path. "The wonderful surprise is I'm not so different, so I feel connected having written this book. There's commonality. Maybe we're a tribe."

As with Elizabeth Gilbert in "Eat, Pray, Love," Christensen unexpectedly found her way to a good relationship. The longtime New Yorker has now settled in New England with her second husband, a change that started her blogging about food and her life. That's why the memoir came now, she says: "I had to wait to have a happy ending."

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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