Reviews for Family meal: a novel

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Food, family, and sex drive this intimate novel about the difficult search for true connections. After the tragic death of his boyfriend, Cam returns to Houston adrift, struggling with drug and sex addiction, and often seeing Kai’s ghost. He gets a job as a bartender and finds himself pulled into the life and family of TJ, his former best friend, from whom he had drifted. Cam’s grief and TJ’s resentment keep them from fully reconciling, while Cam’s addictions slowly overpower him. Readers of Washington’s other work will find a familiar style and themes here. There are several narrators who tell the story in sections, some as short as a sentence or two. The characters are rarely alone but feel isolated or alienated from their families. For a book driven by dialogue, the characters often talk at a slant, not quite saying what’s actually on their minds. The characters are part of both biological and built families. Cam and TJ grew up together and are closer than brothers. Co-workers aren’t just colleagues, but members of a family focused on achieving something together, whether that’s hanging on to one of the last gay bars in a fast-gentrifying Houston neighborhood or nourishing body and soul in TJ’s family bakery. Grief over Kai’s death creates another network. Characters find themselves pushed and pulled from their families in an often futile attempt to get away. The many families in the book are brought together through the act of cooking, and few writers bring food to life like Washington. When things are going well, the kitchens here are humming. People know exactly where everything is located, the cooks communicate almost telepathically, and the reader can nearly taste the food. Thankfully, Washington luxuriates in descriptions of smells, tastes, and textures without letting the narrative get bogged down. Many of the characters are happiest when they’re cooking or eating because that allows them to communicate without the burden of words. As Kai says, “My family taught me the difference between acceptance, allowance, and understanding. Also: just being. Sometimes they overlap. Usually, they don’t.” Washington brilliantly commits to his style and preoccupations in a novel about the often winding journey to family. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

Cam is back in Houston after his boyfriend's death in L.A., working in a bar, finding sex on the apps, and avoiding TJ, his sort-of brother who, readers get the sense, he can't hide his intense pain and struggle from. In Washington's (Memorial, 2020) second novel, Cam speaks first before TJ narrates, with interludes from Kai, who readers soon learn was killed by police during an unprovoked traffic stop with Cam in the driver's seat. Cam knew real love with Kai, while TJ has been playing secret boyfriend to a closeted, engaged guy. In their lives and in the book, the two men are halves of a whole, neither a stranger to loss but each able to make sense of the other's grief. Readers will sink into these thorny and vulnerable characters, the words, food, sex, and love they offer one another, and the pulsing, sprawling Houston they live in. Like a restaurant's "family meal," in which staff are fed together before the rush of service begins, the novel seems to prepare Cam and TJ for something beyond the page.

Library Journal
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In his second novel (after Memorial), NYPL Young Lion Washington offers a heart-shaking, scorchingly honest study of the damage we do ourselves, the lure of addictive behavior, and the courage it takes to face one's anguish. After the death of his lover Kai, a devastated Cam returns home to Houston from Los Angeles, haunted by Kai's loquacious ghost. Working at a queer bar called Harry's, Cam encounters TJ, to whom he was once close as breathing; TJ's Korean father and Black mother took in Cam when he was orphaned, he worked in their bakery, and together the two boys discovered what it means to be queer. Now they're estranged, and the bitterness between them is palpable. Yet so is the love. When Cam's awful emptiness pushes him into destructive behavior, affectingly shown, TJ is there for him, and Cam is later there to call out TJ's demons. It's a long road, but in the end Cam can say, "What I have learned is that we need everyone." Fittingly, everyone in this novel, from TJ's parents and bakery workers to Kai's family to bar owner Fern and his husband and son, is beautifully drawn. VERDICT A group portrait that strikingly captures both pain and healing; highly recommended.—Barbara Hoffert

Publishers Weekly
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Washington’s tender, melancholic latest (following Memorial) explores the complicated nature of grief and love. Cam, mourning the death of his lover Kai, is back in Houston after spending time in rehab, but he’s still struggling with addiction and an eating disorder. When the bar he’s working at closes, Cam accepts childhood friend TJ’s job offer at his family bakery. Between his visions of the deceased Kai and attempts to ease his pain with random hookups, Cam’s despair is palpable: he feels he is “suffocating from the weight of myself.” At the narrative’s midpoint, the perspective shifts first to Kai’s flashbacks, then to TJ, who observes that Cam’s grief and psychological work in rehab have transformed him into “a weed in the concrete that finally found wiggle room.” TJ’s parallel story is equally consuming, as he navigates his secret relationship with Ian and his budding romance with Noel, a new employee at the bakery. When Noel asks TJ to cook a meal for their family, the two begin a tentative relationship that forces TJ to question what he really wants. Washington brings his tough but fragile characters to life with quietly powerful prose, as when TJ reflects, “I didn’t want to be accepted or tolerated. I wanted to just be.” Readers will be deeply moved. Agent: Danielle Bukowski, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct.)