Ruth Reichl (Garlic and Sapphires; Tender at the Bone) has been synonymous with "food writing" since 1972; the former New York Times restaurant critic, restaurant co-owner and food-show host has informed the way the U.S. thinks about cooking and dining for decades. In Delicious!, her first novel, a young woman works for an ill-fated food magazine, reminiscent of Reichl's days as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet. The story soon goes beyond the autobiographical to become both a richly detailed historic fiction of the U.S. home front during World War II and a poignant exploration of love and loss.

It's unclear why Billie Breslin has fled California for New York, but her immersion in the magazine world includes the fellowship of the quirky staff and an iconic family-operated Italian cheese shop. A self-deprecating loner, Billie is most honest in letters to her beloved sister. Reichl repeats this epistolary theme in the novel's delightful second plot: in a hidden room in the magazine's headquarters, Billie discovers a cache of letters an Ohio girl wrote to her idol, James Beard, in the early '40s.

Billie opens her heart and imagination to the correspondents and is slowly coaxed from her unexplained melancholy by a very present-day admirer. Her devotion to the history she uncovers is rewarded as she follows clues to Cleveland to solve mysteries the letters raised. By the well-plotted end, Billie's curiosity and loving nature lead her to truths about herself as well. Don't expect any of Reichl's enticing recipes, though; most included here feature World War II surplus ingredients, with the exception of a special gingerbread. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

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