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BOOK REVIEW

'Cooking' is sweet, fluffy fun

Does the popular novel need to slim down? Kay-Marie James seems to think so. James, who according to the publicity material is a well-known literary author writing under a pseudonym, has entered the genre with a fresh approach to domestic comedy, in which a previously happy marriage faces a linked series of crises, and she serves it up as light and fluffy as the best souffle. If -- at 208 pages -- that isn't particularly filling, well, this is a book written for entertainment, and humor can be nourishing, too.

The setup for "Cooking for Harry" could have come straight from an advice column written by the late Erma Bombeck. The narrator, Francie, works as a physical therapist. She's very aware of nutrition and health. But when she comes home to her shy, computer geek of a husband, she's loath to comment on his expanding girth. After all, Harry, the husband, is a gourmet chef, a true artist in the kitchen. Not only does he step out of his painfully self-conscious persona when he's busy with his whisks and woks, he also delights his wife with his skills, whether he's turning out lowly buttered popcorn or a Christmas goose (stuffed with apricots and prunes). If his children (nicknamed Dumpling and Pop-Tart) are less than thrilled, neither parent really minds. That is, until their son, Jason (Pop-Tart), cajoles his father into stepping onto a state-of-the-art programmable bathroom scale that reveals Harry is 100 pounds overweight.

At issue is more than vanity. A trip to a friendly doctor (one of Francie's colleagues) confirms her suspicions: "Your good cholesterol is low and your bad cholesterol is high," the doctor tells Harry, and that's just the beginning of the bad news. Harry's weight has put him at serious risk for diabetes and heart disease. Luckily, the doctor is able to get him into a weight-loss study program that's basically the Atkins Diet, hence the book's subtitle.

The new diet and exercise program works. But as Harry starts to shed weight he also begins to lose his crushing shyness. And as he spends more and more time at the gym, at his weight-loss group meetings, or taking the initiative on new projects at work, Francie has to wonder: Who is losing what? Harry is getting healthier -- and handsomer -- but as their 25th anniversary approaches, could it be that their marriage is on the rocks?

Because this is clearly a gentle, old-fashioned comedy, the answer to that question should be obvious from the get-go. However, James makes Francie's anxiety and grief palpable. Even if we can see the resolution, she can't, and that keeps us reading.

At first, faced by Harry's enormous health risks, she describes lying in bed holding his "good, warm weight" and remembering how her overweight father had died suddenly. "We'd been lucky thus far, but luck runs out. It doesn't take more than a moment for your whole life to fall apart." Soon, however, she finds her intimacy with the cuddly Harry disappearing as well. Watching Jason dance, she realizes, he "danced the way that Harry danced, a little bit self-consciously. Suddenly, I wondered if I'd ever dance with Harry again."

Her suspicion finally culminates in a confession. The sins are not major, but they do shake things up. A newly single man appears to console Francie, although fate (in the form of a tropical storm) keeps things from getting out of hand. Harry gets his comeuppance, and has to eat it, too, before the couple settle in again.

None of this is groundbreaking, and at times it can become a bit smug. James has a tendency to come out with her own takes on old saws, noting, for example, that "Laughter is not only the best medicine, it's also the least expensive, and you don't need to drive to the pharmacy to get it." More than anything else, such lines give credence to the author's supposed fame in higher literary circles: There's a slightly condescending note to such advice, as if the author were holding herself above the work.

But also present throughout is an obvious skill with language and characters. The geeky son and the spoiled daughter? These stock characters are deftly drawn. And the emergence of the newly confident, newly fit Harry follows realistic lines. As for Francie, weighted down by her fears about being an enabler or too deeply in denial to function, she needn't have worried. As Harry rediscovers over the course of this light and pleasant read, Francie is neither a model nor a model wife, but she's fine the way she is.

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