Review: Too Hot to Touch, by Louisa Edwards

I read and enjoyed Edwards’ 2009 debut, Can’t Stand the Heat. When I saw AAR’s Desert Isle Keeper review of Too Hot to Touch, her fourth book, I decided it was time to revisit Edwards’ contemporary romances set in the culinary world. In THtT, the setting is an established family restaurant in New York City, Lunden & Sons Tavern. The book begins with a prologue. A 17 year old Jules Cavanaugh, crying and banged up, makes her way from her violent home to the only place she can turn for help: her friend Danny’s family’s restaurant. Danny’s dad, Gus, takes her in and, as six years pass with the flip of a page, Jules becomes a cook and a surrogate daughter and sister to the Lunden family. Unfortunately, both Gus’s health and the restaurant’s fortunes have deteriorated, so they plan to raise their profile in the city’s new culinary scene by entering the nationally televised Rising Star Chef competition, sponsored by cooking magazine Délicieux. The family needs elder son Max, who has experience in cooking competitions, and who was the subject of some of Jules’ adolescent fantasies, to come home and help. But Max left the family home on bad terms (he wanted to try new things in the kitchen, but Gus claimed tradition was more important), and has been happily globetrotting, living in Japan, Italy and anywhere he can get new life experiences while honing his cooking skills.

When his mother calls– omitting information about the restaurant’s declining fortunes and the patriarch’s declining health — Max agrees to help with the first round of the competition, but he’ll have to jet after that, thanks to an internship he has lined up in Italy.  When Max enters the Lunden kitchen, he sees the beautiful Jules, and comes on to her in such a strong and frankly slimy way that I disliked him intensely. I was also disappointed in Jules for allowing him to put the moves on her in no time flat. I predicted that the book was going to be a kind of reformed rake story, and when Jules agrees to “no strings attached” sex (*sigh*), thanks in part to bad luck dating a former coworker (She’ll never do that again! *double sigh*), I thought the novel’s terrain would be as flat and predictable as an 8 lane highway.

But something happened to turn Too Hot to Touch into a very satisfying, and even emotional and touching read. For one thing, Max falls hard and fast for Jules. For another, while it is true that Max is a typical contemporary romance hero in his desire to avoid commitment, he’s actually been searching — really! —  for knowledge and truth on his travels. The scenes in which Max tries, and usually fails, to use his newly learned Zen techniques to deal with his family rang very true – and funny —  to me. I thought it was interesting that Edwards wrote a hero who was shallow in his attitude towards relationships and family, but quite complex and even deep in other ways. He is just genuinely curious, restless, and enthusiastic about life. These things may not readily lend themselves to a stable career and home life, but they are not necessarily character flaws, something that becomes clear when we see their effect on the very controlled and tentative Jules. Here they are in the trivia portion of the competition, where Jules has completely frozen, à la Cindy Brady:

Fear turned Jules’s knees to gelatin. “But I know this one,” she whispered frantically. “What if I freeze up again?”

His hand was still covering hers on the buzzer, and he twined their fingers together, smiling warmly. “You won’t,” he said, confidence spilling from his pores. “You’ll know the answer to Slater’s question. You’re our last, best hope for winning this thing, Jules. There’s no way you’ll let us down.”

She stared straight into his calm gray eyes, her breath caught in her chest.

Is there anything on earth more seductive than a man who believes in you?

Jules closed her eyes and tried to be the woman he thought she was. “Go for it. I’ll get the next one, and we’ll win.”

The book blurb suggests that there will be a professional rivalry between Jules, who heads up the Lunden’s Tavern team, and Max, the prodigal son returned, but that’s misleading. Max doesn’t ever really challenge Jules, and, in fact, is incredibly supportive of her. Max needs to learn to forgive, he needs to learn to compromise, and he needs to learn that other people have something to offer him which he doesn’t know he needs, and Jules helps him with all of that. Max helps Jules confront her past (that prologue), to be satisfied with her own unadorned, tomboyish beauty, and to trust in her cooking and leadership abilities. Where they are rivals is for the affection of the Lunden family, and it’s the family dynamics that make the relationship especially interesting. How will Danny and Gus feel about Max and Jules’s relationship? Can they forgive Max? Is there even still a place for Max if he wanted one?

Layered over this is the competition itself. I’m no expert as to its authenticity, but as a reader, I felt Edwards’ portrayal of life in the restaurant and of the intensity of the cooking competition was a thrilling read. I was fascinated to learn the three classical variations of a basic brown sauce, what makes an apple smell like an apple, and the last meal eaten by the folks on the Titanic, course by tragic course. Edwards has a knack for quickly sketching memorable secondary characters, such as the judges and the other Lunden team members, that, with one exception, really enhance the story. I’m particularly looking forward to the next book, which is Danny’s, and the third, which features another member of the Lunden team, a burly, silent, and slightly terrifying cook named Beck, first name unknown.

The exception is the time devoted to the attraction between Délicieux editor (and contest judge), the elegant (read: uptight) Frenchwoman Claire Durand, and Kane Slater, California rock star (read: just what Claire needs) and food contest judge. I felt that the Lunden family “issues” (Gus’s health, Max’s estrangement, etc.) and the cooking competition took enough time away from the development of Max and Jules’ romance, and did not want to devote more pages to this other couple. Via Twitter, Edwards indicated that Claire and Kane’s relationship was not, in fact, sequel bait, but will develop over the course of the series. I am not sure if knowing that from the beginning would have helped me to accept its intrusion more. YMMV.

I really liked this one. If you are looking for a unique, touching, and satisfying contemporary romance, you should check out Too Hot to Touch.

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