To escape an abusive marriage that threatens her two teenage daughters, Camille Bergeron flees her beloved New Orleans and lands on a small island off the coast of Maine. Once there she finds refuge by renting the upstairs apartment in a house belonging to Ben Haskell and his son Matthew. Quickly the lives of these two broken families become intertwined both in love and in business as they use Camille's Creole cooking talents to found the Little Gale Gumbo restaurant. While this might be the foundation that heals their broken hearts and broken lives, their idyllic existence is shattered again and again by the persistent appearance of Camille's estranged husband shows up throughout the years culminating in one horrific event that threatens lives and causes secrets and lies of their tangled past to be revealed.
Little Gale Gumbo, the debut novel of Erika Marks, is written in the spirit of Adrianna Trigiani's big hearted family sagas. The actions of the characters are driven by their love for one another, the obvious love between mother and daughters, the sibling rivalry and fierce loyalty between the sisters, Dahlia and Josie, and their star-crossed love for the men in their lives. The story is told in a series of alternating chapters between the aftermath of a tragedy in the present, and the events in the past years that led up to the event and provide the impetus for the tangled relationships that created the tragedy.
I enjoyed the book thoroughly and quickly got caught up in the relationships between the sisters and the men they eventually fall in love with for better or worse. However, I felt that one weakness of the story was Camille's refusal to divorce the man who abused her for so many years, who came up to the island from time to time only to torment his family. While his appearance certainly provided dramatic energy, once the girls became adults it simply didn't make sense that Camille didn't divorce a man who caused her so much pain, especially when she was happily in love with Ben, who not only provided her first safe home, but helped her to start a successful business.
Thankfully, other than that one inexplicable wrinkle, Little Gale Gumbo reads like comfort food. The relationships are complex, substantial, fraught with complications and uneasy answers, but ultimately satisfying. As a reader, I found myself turning the pages quickly to find out if the high school lovers would be re-united, if the tragic accident was just that or a malicious act of revenge that would tear lovers apart. While food plays a central role in this novel, in the end the strength of the story is in how it portrays the healing love between broken hearts, the power of that love to heal in unexpected ways.