(Los Angeles, CA: Unnamed Press 2020)
Dark. Delicious. Smart and deeply literary. A novel of sublime prose and piquant wit, A Certain Hunger, by Chelsea G. Summers, is part psychological thriller, part unapologetic tale of sexual desire from a woman of ‘a certain age’. It’s a story not dissimilar from Summers own self-description –– a recovering academic, an ex-stripper, a writer, and a woman ‘of a certain age’ unashamedly interested in sex.
The first-person narrator, Dorothy Daniels, is fifty-one years old and stunning: six-feet tall, red-haired, formidable cheekbones. She revels in all the sensual pleasures of food, drink, and sex. Daniels is the kind of attractive that compels good-looking, stylish men at bars to send her drinks with flirtatious propositions, and Daniels is the kind of woman who enthusiastically accepts. In the novel’s opening, she meets a man at the Nomad hotel bar in NYC, while sipping a presciently named cocktail, a Corpse Reviver #2. He tells her, “You have what I call ‘resting bitchface’. It’s interesting.”
Offering a first taste of the narrator’s style, often soulful and poetic, Daniels ruminates, “Later, though not much later, I’d explore the inside of this young man’s mouth with my tongue and fingers; it would taste of bourbon and ennui. His mouth would explore the lemon and salt of my pussy; it would taste of multiple orgasms and poor judgement.” She follows with her other signature dish –– slicing humor. “Wait until you see it in full fucking action, little man.”
And he does. He can’t resist. After their hotel tryst, she invites him to a weekend on Fire Island. She woos him in a house on the water, with crispy duck swimming in sizzling, rendered fat and crusty Tuscan bread, eaten with their fingers and accompanied by drinks (Old Fashions and a ’99 Brunello) followed by a course of warm, fire-side sex, finished with the heft of a vintage ice pick in hand, a plunge, and a flood of blood like chocolate sauce. Her lover is dead.
Spoiler alert? None required. This scene is an appetizer, or rather an amuse bouchè; it is far from the novel’s decadent main course.
Dorothy Daniels is in her professional prime as well. She’s worked for eleven years at a pretentious, top-tier glossy magazine, Eat & Drink. Her name sits on the masthead. She is a well-compensated senior staff writer. “I won a fucking James Beard award,” she protests when unexpectedly laid-off. Humiliated, she feels, “obsolete, an anachronism…the hanging chad of the publishing world.”
After her job loss to “a collection of Barnard graduates jabbering about cupcakes, recession salmon recipes, Gordon Ramsey, and the Momofuku effect,” Daniels remakes herself from food critic to Food Writer and titles her book Voracious. Daniels herself is voracious, with an insatiable appetite –– for fine cuisine, for men, and occasionally, for women. She pursues a new vocation and a series of affairs with the same intensity.
Dorothy Daniel’s closest and longest-lasting relationship, unsurprisingly, is a platonic friendship with another woman. She meets Emma Absinthe in college, they lose touch, then find one another again years later. Emma supports and cares for Dorothy in a way she has not experienced from family or lover. Emma is her best friend and possibly her greatest betrayer.
A novel about over-indulging, about gormandizing on culinary and sexual treats, is not enough for Summers; she throws pathology into the pot and stirs. Dorothy Daniels is diagnosed as “A perfect specimen of a female Anti-Social Personal disorder!” She declares, “I am a psychopath.” In character and plot, Summers writes to extremes, to the outer edges of human derangement, and this reader is thrilled to be served.
To the list of unforgettable fictional characters whose bloody internal struggles are as interesting as their actions: Annie Wilkes, Hannibal Lecter, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and Dexter –– add Dorothy Daniels — she earns her place among them.
Some reviewers have labeled the work satire. While there are moments when Summers plays to satire, the novel is not satirical by definition — the author is not seeking to expose or criticize through exaggeration. Daniel’s insatiate sexuality (rarely shown in a woman nearer to menopause than to puberty) is not hyperbole. Her character may be larger than life, but she is real. Daniels craves with abandon. Daniels lusts after food. Daniels hungers for sex. Daniels greedily devours her romantic interests, satisfying her own appetites with little regret. She may be gluttonous and greedy in her indulgences, above the societal expectations for her gender and age, but she is no caricature. She is larger than life, but she is real.
Daniels is often crude, beyond explicit to downright filthy. Just as often, her interior conversations are sensitive and intuitive. Daniels is psychopathic, but she is also capable of profound emotion. She consumes, she cedes to her base desires, but she cares for her familiars and eventually falls in love with a man. The author is not immune to idealizing the romantic either — some of the novel’s most engaging moments are quiet reflections.
Preverbal, love is the smell of a known body, the touch of a recognized hand, the blurred face in a haze of light. Words come, and love sharpens. Love becomes describable, narratable, relatable. Over time, one love comes to lay atop another…One love coats another, like the clear pages of an anatomy textbook, drawing pictures of things we can only ever see in fractions…In time, love becomes a dense manuscript, a palimpsest of inscrutable, epic proportions, one love overlaying another thick and hot and stinking of beds. It’s an unreadable mess.
Summers renders Dorothy Daniels not so differently than Nabokov does Humbert Humbert — one is an obsessive pedophile who nevertheless invokes in the reader an uncomfortable sympathy, and the other grossly violates the most universal tenant of humanity. And yet, her inevitable punishment is less than satisfying, though she does, as villains often do, earn her just desserts. But despite our disquiet at her distasteful actions, in the end, we find ourselves a little disappointed that the glorious feast is over.
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Laura Calaway is an ardent reader, a persistent writer, a lifelong Texan, holds a BA in creative writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in fiction. She writes fiction, tweets, and posts to Instagram, not necessarily in that order, @lauracalaway.