The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman

A debut memoir with food, medical and literary themes and a bibliotherapy-affirming title – this book ticks a whole lot of boxes for me. The very day I saw it mentioned on Twitter I requested a copy, and it was a warming, cozy read for the dark days of late December. As a teenager, freelance journalist Laura Freeman suffered from anorexia, and ever since she has struggled to regain a healthy relationship with food. This is decidedly not an anorexia memoir; if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll want to pick up Nancy Tucker’s grueling but inventive The Time in Between. Instead, it’s about the lifelong joy of reading and how books have helped Freeman in the years that she has been haltingly recovering a joy of eating.

If asked to name a favorite food, Freeman writes that it would be porridge – or, if she was really pressed, perhaps her mother’s roast chicken dinner. But it’s been so long since she’s thought of food in terms of pleasure that written accounts of feasting from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher or Parson Woodforde might as well be written in a foreign language. When in 2012 she decided to read the whole of Charles Dickens’s oeuvre in his bicentenary year, she was struck afresh by the delight his characters take in meals.

While I was reading Dickens something changed. I didn’t want to be on the outside, looking at pictures, tasting recipes at one remove, seeing the last muffin go to someone else. I began to want to want food. To share it, savour it, to have it without guilt.

This nascent desire for a broader and more sumptuous food repertoire fuels the author through her voracious reading: of war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves with their boiled eggs and cocoa; of travel writers Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor and their enthusiastic acceptance of whatever food came their way on treks; and of rediscovered favorite children’s books from The Secret Garden through the Harry Potter series with the characters’ greedy appetite for sweets. Other chapters are devoted to Virginia Woolf, whose depression and food issues especially resonate for Freeman; food writers; famous gluttons; and the specific challenge of chocolate, which she can’t yet bring herself to sample because it’s “so tangled up in my mind with ideas of sin, greed and loss of control.”

It’s these psychological and emotional aspects of food that Freeman is so good at capturing. She recognizes a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking that makes her prey to clean eating fads and exclusion diets. Today she still works to stifle the voices that tell her she’ll never be well and she doesn’t deserve to eat; she also tries to block out society’s contradictory messages about fat versus thin, healthy versus unhealthy, this diet versus that one. Channeling Dickens, she advises, “Don’t make a Marshalsea prison of rules for yourself – no biscuits at tea, no meat in the week, no pudding, not ever. Don’t trap yourself in lonely habits.”

Freeman’s taste in both food and literature seems a trifle old-fashioned, leaning towards jolly ol’ English stuff, but that’s because this is about comfort reading as much as it is about rediscovering comfort eating. Her memoir delicately balances optimism with reality, and encourages us to take another look at the books we love and really notice all those food scenes. Maybe our favorite writers have been teaching us how to eat well all along.

My rating:

 


The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite is published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. My thanks to Virginia Woolstencroft for the review copy.

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13 thoughts on “The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite by Laura Freeman

  1. I’ve been waiting to see what you think of this one – very glad you liked it! Although, now it means I want to read it… You’ve also reminded me of Nancy Tucker’s memoir, and I’ve just added her new one to my list (comes out this spring, I think).
    My love for food comes in close behind my love for books, so I find it hard to fathom what it would be like *not* to want it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m looking forward to Nancy Tucker’s new book, too. (I was supposed to be getting a review copy of that at some point, actually — I might need to chase it up.)

      My sister had anorexia/bulimia for a time in high school, so I have some understanding of the mindset, but I agree that it’s hard to imagine having such a punishing relationship with food. Reading this made me feel lucky that I’ve never had any major issues with eating.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds fascinating – not a topic I can face, unfortunately, but a new and life-affirming taken on the issues involved. I don’t think I really notice food in novels, apart from the truly terrible meals in Iris Murdoch, based on real life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Murdoch’s meals would be a whole different take on the food-in-literature theme 😉

      The information about her anorexia is not too hard to take as it’s in the background. Nancy Tucker’s memoir, on the other hand, is very harrowing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can see where having old-fashioned taste could make this a more interesting cure overall. The food in the “Little House” books is wonderful, for instance! (Although not likely a cure for anything, except that they save a lot of foods we consider everyday foods – like pancakes and biscuits – for actual holiday celebrations, not at all for ordinary days.)

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    1. There could definitely be some good North American counterparts to the cozy English books she chooses. I’m rereading Little Women at the moment, and while it has some notably disastrous meals it also has some quaint ones, and even their hurried breakfasts sound pleasant.

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