Angela Russo is thirty-three years old and single, stuck in a job she doesn't love and a life that seems, somehow, to have just happened. Though she inherited a flair for Italian cooking from her grandmother, she never has the time; for the past six months, her oven has held only sweaters. Tacked to her office bulletin board is a picture torn from a magazine of a cottage on the coast of Maine, a reminder to Angela that there are other ways to live, even if she can't seem to figure them out.
One day at work, Angela clicks on a tiny advertisement in the corner of her computer screen—"Do Soulmates Exist?"—and finds herself at a dating website, where she stumbles upon "MaineCatch," a thirty-five-year-old sailing instructor with ice-blue eyes. To her great surprise, she strikes up a dizzying correspondence with MaineCatch—yet as her online relationship progresses, life in the real world takes a nosedive. Interpreting this confluence of events as a sign, Angela impulsively decides to risk it all and move to Maine.
But things don't work out quite as she expected. Far from everything familiar, and with little to return to, Angela begins to rebuild her life from the ground up, moving into a tiny cottage and finding work at a local coffee shop. To make friends and make ends meet, she leads a cooking class, slowly discovering the pleasures and secrets of her new small community, and—perhaps—a way to connect her heritage to a future she is only beginning to envision.
The Way Life Should Be is about the search for the right relationship and the right life, the difficulty of finding true love, and the yearning for the home that food represents. Laced with recipes and humor, wisdom and wit, it is at once a clear-eyed portrait of Maine, a compassionate look at modern life and love, and a compelling work of literary fiction that explores the gulf between the way life is and the way we want it to be.
After college I wanted to apply to culinary school, but my father, who is an accountant, objected. "Cooking isn't a real job," he said.
"Too much hard work," my stepmother chimed in. "Terrible hours. Take my advice, Angela: Get a normal job where you can leave at five. You'll thank me when you have children."
"Nonsense. Carpe diem!" my mother exclaimed long-distance, but I wasn't inclined to take her advice. When she ran off with Murray Singer, she didn't just leave my father, she abandoned my brother and me. I overheard the arguments before she left—she needed a clean break, she wasn't emotionally equipped to deal with needy children, my father had always been the better parent anyway. She and Murray moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, and I only saw her three times before, in my midtwenties, she was killed in a car accident. My brother and I flew out to the funeral, but it was hard to feel much for a woman who had written us out of her life fifteen years earlier, when we needed her most.
So after college I moved to New York City with Lindsay, my best friend from high school. We rented an apartment near the river on the Upper East Side and did temp work at consulting firms while looking for normal jobs where we could leave at five. I cast a wide net for positions available to liberal arts majors with no discernible skills except the ability to make lists, follow directions, and look fairly presentable. As in a game of musical chairs, the music stopped at event planning, and I sat down.
For the past five years I've been planning events at the Hunts-worth Museum, a modish showcase for contemporary art in lower Manhattan. While I like some things about my job—the long-term planning combined with last-minute urgencies, the immediate gratification of momentary accomplishment, the blinking red light on my phone and the jaunty sherbet pop-up Post-its in a little box on my desk—I also have to admit that it's no longer much of a challenge. For the first few years the learning curve was steep, but now my days are spent gliding across a smooth plateau of predictability. I can't erase the nagging sense that there's something else out there for me, if only I knew which direction to take.
It's midmorning and I'm sitting at my desk sipping my second cup of coffee, researching novelty circus acts online. My big project at the moment is a black-tie gala four weeks from now, a benefit for a new wing of avant-garde art featuring the works of the French artist Zoë Devereux. Mary Quince, the curator and my boss, has said only that she wants "color, pizzazz, an element of the outrageous." My idea is to stage an evening that animates figures from Zoë Devereux's paintings—circus and carnival performers, acrobats and fire-eaters and jugglers.
Mimes, jesters, clowns, you name it, apparently they're all for hire, à la carte or as a group. I print out a selection of options to discuss with Mary and start e-mailing several of the acts to see if they're available to perform on September 19. As I'm tapping out an e-mail, my glance strays to the small ad at the bottom right of the screen:
Looking for Your Love Match: Do Soul Mates Exist?
My finger hesitates for a moment over the mouse, and then I click on the tiny blue typeface.
I have found that the biggest moments in life, the ones that change everything, usually catch you by surprise. You might not even recognize them as they happen. Your finger is straying over the mouse and you click on the icon and suddenly you find yourself at the portal of a website—an embarrassingly named website, one that makes you wince: kissandtell.com.
Now why would you ever be drawn to such a place? More important, why would you linger?
A few days ago, during our usual Monday morning check-in, I told Lindsay about the abysmal blind date I'd been on the Saturday night before, and then waited to hear the details of hers.
"Well," Lindsay said, "it wasn't, actually."
"Abysmal. Believe it or not."
Riffling through the cluttered filing cabinet of my brain, I retrieved a scrap of memory: Lindsay joined an online dating service about a month ago. An amateur photographer took her picture. The resulting image, an off-the-shoulder embarrassment in soft focus, provoked a deluge of responses, mostly from shady guys on Long Island. "Don't tell me—it's Hot4U," I joked.
Lindsay laughed uncomfortably. It was clear she regretted sharing this detail. "Actually, it is," she said. "But the name is tongue-in-cheek. You know, an ironic commentary on the whole online-dating thing."
"I see," I said dubiously.
She sighed. "This guy is so great, Ange. So cute, so nice. So smart. I don't know. This is going to sound crazy, but I think maybe I've found my soul mate."
"Are you kidding? It's—pretty soon to be talking soul mates, isn't it, Linz?"
"I know!" she said. "Aren't you happy for me?"
That night, after a dinner of four warm Krispy Kremes straight from the bag, I climbed into a sudsy bath and closed my eyes. How many people, I wondered, can actually claim to have found their soul mate, the one person in the world destiny has set aside for them? Not many, I'd bet. I'm skeptical that there is such a thing. I'm inclined to believe that the whole concept of a soul mate is like Sasquatch, the giant hairy ape-man of legend who turned out to be nothing more than a guy in a monkey suit running through a forest.
But now, sitting at my desk, I think—if Lindsay believes she's actually found her soul mate, who am I to scoff and ridicule?
When you read the Sunday wedding section—the women's sports page, as Lindsay calls it—to see . . .