Tuesday, March 25, 2014


It's been quite some time since author Barbara Samuelson (later O'Neal) transitioned from writing romance to writing books that fall within the broader category of women's fiction. Yet as her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet, shows, her writing still has a great deal to offer readers whose primary allegiance is to romance, particularly those readers with feminist sensibilities.

Willakenzie Lavender Farm,
O'Neal's source for her Lavender Honey Farms
The first gift O'Neal offers is her depiction of a community of women who support each other, both in their professional and personal lives. In the master narrative of traditional romance, most female characters besides the protagonist are cast as evil others, as competition for the main goal of winning the male protagonist's attention, affection, and ultimately, love. Romance novels can often teach readers to be wary of other women, to regard them not as colleagues or allies, but as rivals for the ultimate prize: the winning of a man. The All You Can Dream Buffet, in contrast, depicts four women who have built a community of friendship and support, initially without having even met, at least in person.

Each member of the Foodie Four—eighty-four-year-old Lavender Wills, an airline stewardess during the 60s and 70s and current owner of Lavender Honey Farms; nearly fifty Ginny Smith, small-town grocery store baker turned cake photographer; twenty-six-year-old Ruby Zarlingo, vegan chef; and forty-seven-year-old Valerie Andrews, former prima ballerina and wine connoisseur—drawn by her passion for food, began her own blog. Five years earlier, Lavender asked Ruby if she could use information Ruby posted on her blog about herbs; Valerie contacted Lavender about wine and lavender pairings; Ruby became intrigued by Ginny's beautiful new blog; and soon the four were knee-deep in conversations about the technical and marketing issues of blogging, conversations that gradually began to include the personal as well as the professional. Despite the difference in their ages, backgrounds, geographical locations, and family situations, the magic of the Internet allows Lavender, Ruby, Ginny, and Val reach across time and space and form an encouraging, loving female community. A community that is coming together at long last to meet in celebration of Lavender's birthday.

The second gift O'Neal offers is a depiction of romance in middle age. We're hardly surprised to find twenty-seven-year-old Ruby as the star of one of the novel's romance arcs; late-twenties or early thirties heroines are the staple of current contemporary romance. Yet to find the "edging hard toward fifty" Ginny in the midst of an unexpected mutual attraction is a surprise as sweet as any of the cakes Ginny photographs for her blog. Particularly because the married Ginny has lived her entire life in the (perhaps heavy-handedly, but quite tellingly) named town of Dead Gulch, Kansas, living quietly within the low expectations of her fellow townsfolks, friends, and family. Blossoming love is not only for the young folks, but can happen to us middle-aged ones, too, O'Neal's novel quietly but persuasively insists.

And this is the third gift that O'Neal offers: the gift of new beginnings, the gift of moving on. Ginny isn't the only one who uses the opportunity of the trip to Lavender's Oregon farm to take stock of her life, and to change its direction. Whether it is moving on from a deadening marriage, from the confusion of a relationship ended without explanation, or even from the excoriating pain of grief, O'Neal shows us women in transition, women supporting one another as each struggles to emerge from a time of confusion and pain, shucking off the temporary cocoon such times require to emerge on the other side, ready to embrace new possibilities, new beginnings.

What I most appreciated about this gift was the novel's insistence that we can't always explain, or even understand, why relationships that began in such joy sometimes turn so horribly wrong. Ginny's husband cannot, or will not, ever explain why he stopped wanting to have sex with her; Ruby's former boyfriend can't find any words to tell her, or even himself, why, after six years of being passionately in love with Ruby, he woke up one day to find himself just as passionately in love with someone else. It is tempting for both Ruby and Ginny to take the blame, or perhaps the opposite, to turn their hurt into bitterness and hate for a once-beloved partner. Instead, the novel shows us a Ginny and a Ruby who gradually come to accept that while there may never be understanding, neither can live a fulfilling life if she continues to long for what her partner simply cannot give. Life is a buffet of dreams; sometimes you must give up an old, familiar favorite to have the room savor the delights of a dish yet to be tasted.

ARC Courtesy of NetGalley

Photo credits:
Lavender: Willakenzie Lavender Farm
Blog banners: Barbara O'Neal

The All You Can Dream Buffet
Bantam, 2014


  1. The book is delightful, and as a farmer in Yamhill County I can tell you the book paints a vivid and accurate picture of the beautiful quality of life in Yamhill County, Oregon! One more important gift of this book is MEAD. Barbara mentions it several times in the book: Lavender's farm is a MEADERY. The book is best enjoyed with a glass of mead in hand.

    1. I've never had mead, although reading this book makes me eager to give it a try...