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Book review: Comfort Food For Breakups

RECIPES FOR LIFE. Marusya Bociurkiw's enticing memoir Comfort Food For Breakups.

Toronto writer Marusya Bociurkiw’s memoir, Comfort Food For Breakups, is all the things a good meal should be — it has a vibrant style and presentation, it goes down easy and though it satisfies it keeps you hungry for more.

Comfort Food explores place, culture, family (both chosen and blood), history and romantic love. Despite covering vastly different topics and times, the book has an easy flow. It’s Bociurkiw’s fourth, and her literary experience in fiction and verse shine through. She injects just the right amount of poetry into a mostly conversational style.

Bociurkiw names each short chapter after a particular food or meal, then riffs from there. Unlike most memoirs, the narrative isn’t linear. She travels circularly between her childhood in an immigrant Edmonton family, her travels in her 20s and 30s, her life in Vancouver and Halifax and her current relationships. A fruit in one story may be a thread to an occurrence five years prior or hence.

Such is the case with “Tomatoes,” a piece that begins with the huge tomatoes in a friend’s Bulgarian garden after the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukraine. It then flows beautifully to Bociurkiw’s mother’s abundant Edmonton tomatoes, to tomato sandwiches as a child at her grandmother’s house, to a single tomato shared between herself and four other flavour-starved activists in Nicaragua.

“Tomatoes” culminates with the intense telling of her French friend Claire’s lesbian breakup. Claire shows up at Bociurkiw’s Vancouver apartment with the dramatic announcement, “C’est absolument fini!” Bociurkiw, skilled as she is at showing emotion through food, whips up a delicious pasta, effectively staunching the wounds of love.

As with many pieces in this book, Bociurkiw provides the reader of “Tomatoes” with the very recipe that saved the day. In this story it’s “Pasta Sauce Passionata.” Although this is one of the easier recipes in the book, Bociurkiw writes instructions in a way that makes even Chocolate Truffle Cake sound possible for the newest of cooks.

Bociurkiw captures life’s odd transitions between grief and joy with an admirable precision. One moment you’re weeping about her father’s detention in a Nazi camp for being part of the Ukrainian resistance, the next you’re cheering her on as she lets down her Catholic hair in a post-high-school trip across Europe. Then you’re laughing as she comforts her friends about her own breakup.

Though occasionally her endings are overly neat, Bociurkiw is an expert at creating space for nuance and reflection. She avoids easy conclusions about her estrangement from her street-performer, alcoholic brother. She is awe-stricken by the Ukrainian “Divas,” friends of her mother who set a mighty standard for food and love. She embraces the intricacies of butch-femme relationships, death and illness, seduction and sex. She even throws in some Russian philosophy, Jacques Derrida and Dionne Brand.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating strands in this book is the intersection of East European and queer cultures. As Bociurkiw says early on of her Ukrainian roots, “Artmaking is not to be taken lightly.” And the dedication to both art and food, in Eastern Europe and at queer gatherings in Vancouver, is strangely similar. Though sometimes worlds apart, Bociurkiw’s two families share a belief in transformation through the physical. Both cultures offer her the sweet taste of coming home.

Mouthwatering varennyky from her mother, or a richly iced carrot cake for her lover, say the same thing in different tones — sometimes, briefly, “What you have is enough.”