I like autobiography. I like allusions. I like food. Love, Loss, and What We Ate (Harper Collins, 2016) by Padma Lakshmi has all three. The book begins as a recollection of her romance, marriage to, and divorce from celebrated author Salman Rushdie. The book opens in 2007 with Lakshmi in a residential hotel having just left the New York townhouse she shared with Rushdie during their marriage. As she struggles to recover from their breakup, she realizes that for her, resilience must come with a menu. But so must celebration, mourning, work, socializing, travel, and relaxation.
The title, an allusion to Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman (1995), hints at the book’s somewhat unorthodox form. Beckerman’s memoir intersperses traditional narrative with her own drawings, decidedly inexpert according to her, of her outfits through the years. Lakshmi does something similar, including recipes for foods that comfort her along with tales of when she has eaten them and assessments of the difference they have made in her wellbeing. The namesake book was inspiration for a well-reviewed stage play by Delia Ephron and Nora Ephron in 2009. It may have been this production, combining levity and pain, that inspired both the memoir’s name and Lakshmi’s choice to intersperse disparate elements in a single volume.
Though the book spans much of Lakshmi’s life, all its elements exists in the shadow of her relationship with Rushdie. Lakshmi defends it, extols it, details its disintegration, and indicate that it still haunts her. When she first encounters Rushdie, he is married to his third wife and living in the shadow of a fatwa issued in the wake of The Satanic Verses (1989) . She describes their initial encounters as suffused by her admiration for him. His words, and her simple joy in the fact that he pays so much attention to her, seduce her into beginning a relationship that leads to their 2004 marriage.
Yet Lakshmi’s depiction, even when she’s recounting being breathlessly in love, leaves the reader with a sense of foreboding. She admires him in ways that seem to preclude the kind of relationship she wants. His intellectual and professional achievements intimidate her in ways that lead her to compare her own accomplishments and aspirations unfavorably. Almost immediately I was left to wonder how she got to be this person who moved so successfully through fabulous social circles while thinking so little of herself.
Lakshmi reveals aspects of her upbringing in New York, Kerala, India, and Los Angeles that help explain how she got into the relationship and telegraphed its painful ending. She recounts a childhood where older men are kinder than younger ones and where food, culture, love, and adventure are all extensions of one another. Being taught the former via painful circumstances makes her learning the latter an important step toward her coping with the vagaries associated with people’s erratic behavior and with the need to consistently readjust to new environments.
The book is immersive, in part because of Lakshmi’s way with metaphors. She calls her reaction to Rushdie telling her during the early part of their affair that he was divorcing his wife “fully emulsified mixture of shock and guilt.” The phrase gets at the surprising and tenuous nature of an emulsion made for immediate consumption. As the food comparison momentarily removes the reader from Lakshmi’s response to his phone call, it lands temporarily mid-meal preparation, giving the sense that timing is of the essence and that whatever is coming to culmination has been made deliberately.
In fact, this metaphor works well as a way of understanding the narrative as a whole. Lakshmi writes of an unintended consequence using an action that implies a larger plan. Throughout she writes of actions that seem counter to intentions or perhaps taken without regard to the outcomes.