The Streets of Buffalo, à la Carte: Thea Swanson’s The Curious Solitude of Anise

Charles Haddox

Curious Solitude of AniseAnise is homeless, forty-seven years old, and sleeping on old blankets in an abandoned restaurant where she reads books by candlelight in the company of a stray cat named Mandy. Surrounded by her collection of cooking gear, which she uses to make inspired meals with the random ingredients that come her way, Anise lives a rich and complex inner life, despite her outward poverty. Her journey to the lower depths has been long and tragic. At the age of eight, after her mother drowned and her father abandoned her emotionally, Anise discovers that cooking can fill the loneliness of her life, her “curious solitude.” It also helps her to summon both the spirit and voice of her departed mother. Cooking becomes a curse and a blessing, a way of beckoning the inner consolation that she so desperately needs, and a bridge that allows her to reach out and enter the world of others, often with decidedly mixed results.

Thea Swanson, whose short fiction is filled with poetic and moving insight into the interior complexity of characters living on the margins of society, builds a world of sensual richness around Anise, the beleaguered protagonist of this, her first novel. Despite continuous hardship, Anise’s world is abundantly blessed with delicious, imaginative culinary creations, unforgettable ’80s tunes, and eccentric, accidental companions. In Swanson’s masterful hands the gastronomic festivity sweeps us away:


The world, Anise had discovered, was full of baked goods. Endless, like a continuous line of stars that encircled the Earth, a flaky or eggy or dense or light or sweet or savory or filled or fried star, a continuous constellation, the pastromeda, perhaps. (46)

The rich, comforting meals that are her art, her life, and her connection to the world of her dreams and the real world around her eventually offer Anise a chance to transform the mean streets of Buffalo into something of a community. Through the ups and downs of a life formed by an obsession with cooking, the question continually arises: can food ever be enough? Can food heal those who are damaged by war, by neglect, and by the indifference of others? When Anise encounters the homeless veterans who both facilitate, and complicate, her chance at accomplishing something meaningful with her cooking skills, these questions are put to the test.

The Curious Solitude of Anise draws us deep into the world of Anise’s private loneliness: her struggles, senseless tragedies, and her simple, everyday triumphs. Readers will experience the taste of a good cup of coffee and a pastry, the warmth of an old friend, the modest comforts that allow even those at the bottom of society to go on with their lives, and, above all else, the exhilaration that comes from expert, polished storytelling. In the midst of Thea Swanson’s shimmering, vibrant voice, we find the real inner keepsake of The Curious Solitude of Anise, the wonder and value of a truly human story.


The Curious Solitude of Anise
By Thea Swanson
Dorsett, McClaughlin and Whitney, 2013
ISBN: 978-0615777870

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