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A celebratio­n of friendship, freedom and food

- — Reviewed by Dionne Christian

SUPPER CLUB by Lara Williams (Hamish Hamilton, $35) Roberta, the 29-year-old anti-hero in Lara Williams’ novel, Supper Club, is hungry. She desires better lovers and more satisfying relationsh­ips; she’s craving truly meaningful friendship­s and she wants a more fulfilling job. Maybe.

For reasons never made completely clear, this eludes Roberta who “in lieu of life” has settled for an existence. Initially, it reminded me of the Lily Allen song 22 — you know, about the unmarried woman who’s nearly 30 and has a job that’s not a career and society basically says her life is already over because of it.

Except Roberta does have a passion; she relishes sourcing, preparing food and eating — but often it’s for herself alone. She remains an archetypal outsider who never feels as if she can join in the party even though she’s brought the best plate of all.

We might have read socially anxious and awkward women like Roberta before but seldom have they been described as viscerally as Williams does in this dark celebratio­n of female friendship, freedom and food. But while I felt as if I might know Roberta — because there’s a little, or a lot, of her in all of us — she’s never fully fleshed out and this proves to be less than satisfying because I was left continuall­y wondering what exactly there is to her.

Why didn’t she turn her passion for food into something more than what she does? Just how did she go from university, where she occupied a room that was reassuring­ly small with an issued lampshade that “produced a pallid glow that looked like the colour of depression”, to a job at a fashion website? She just seems so easily led, an observer in her own life rather than a proactive participan­t.

When Roberta is raped (that’s not a spoiler, it happens early in the book), the descriptio­n is almost serene and composed with Williams picking her adjectives and verbs and using them sparingly to convey the crime and Roberta’s reaction to it. Maybe, though, that’s a more realistic descriptio­n of what has long happened when a woman, on a not-adate date, is attacked. Roberta’s traumatise­d silences serve as comment, then she feels further shut out and her hunger grows.

Still, the question gnawed away as I read, “Why, when she is clearly so desperate for a life, doesn’t Roberta get one?” I wanted her to do something more than what she does do, intriguing — although not wholly original — as that is. Out of the blue, Roberta meets the daring, artistic and supposedly more outgoing Stevie, who becomes her flatmate and best friend. She fills Roberta with the confidence she needs to make the most of one thing she truly savors by suggesting they start a “supper club” for other hungry women.

This isn’t to be the well-mannered food equivalent of a book club, though. It’s a secret society where women can indulge their cravings — whether for food, drugs, naked tabletop dancing — far away from men. The supper clubs morph into wild bacchanals with the women gathering after dark — in ever more risque and risky venues — to indulge themselves until they’re sick.

Between the descriptio­ns of Roberta’s existence, there are the most tantalisin­g and erotic descriptio­ns of food and eating, complete with deliciousl­y subtle tips and hints for preparing dishes, that I’ve read in ages. But using famine and feasting, appetite and aversion to consider the ways women accept, challenge and ultimately face the world isn’t new, especially in academic circles. Williams takes these ideas and boldly tries to give them a good shake as a glorious metaphor for women’s resistance to a still maledomina­ted world. While the writing is clever, it feels calculated which gives Supper Club a colder edge than perhaps had been intended.

At times, I wondered if Williams had taken a break between writing alternatin­g chapters on Roberta’s past and present to, for example, read about feminist artist Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party? Had she recently seen a revival of Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls with its dreamlike opening sequence where career woman Marlene dines with “difficult women” from history? How many of these words and concepts had she used in university essays?

There’s a lot to digest in the novel, which can be darkly comic — the chapter where Roberta “catches up” with a former flame is darkly delightful — sober and, at times, deeply frustratin­g. It’s certainly one of the more provocativ­e books I’ve read this year and maybe, 20 years older than Roberta, I’m not the target market for a coming-of-age novel like Supper Club.

Yet, despite all this, I know I’ll still be chewing it over for some time to come.

Roberta’s traumatise­d silences serve as comment, then she feels further shut out and her hunger grows.

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