Let’s talk about the good things first.
State of the Onion is the quick, engaging debut for a mystery series by Julie Hyzy set within the storied walls of the White House kitchen. Assistant Chef Ollie Paras has her eye on the top position since her mentor and boss is preparing to retire. Her quest for a promotion isn’t going to be easy, however, with a celebrity chef as her competition and a new “sensitivity director” looking over her shoulder. On top of that, an intruder at the White House raises everyone’s alarm bells just in time for some highly sensitive trade negotiations. Since this is a cozy mystery, the charmingly nosy Ollie is always in the thick of things–from preparing the banquet in honor of two feuding nations to hitting a potential terrorist in the head with a frying pan.
I blazed through this book in a day and a half, and for the most part enjoyed it. Ollie is ditzy yet headstrong in the way cozy mystery heroines typically are, but her role as a White House chef adds some interest in her characterization. None of the other characters are particularly fleshed out but they serve their purpose just fine and I get the feeling their personalities will be given more depth throughout the series. Plus one for the hilariously entertaining “villains” that put Ollie’s career in jeopardy, minus one for the tiresome and weirdly sanctimonious Secret Service boyfriend.
The parts I liked the most deal with the logistical challenge of cooking for the White House, where mistakes can take on global repercussions and the staff is expected to roll with the unexpected at all times. Some days the President just wants scrambled eggs for breakfast while on others they are required to create a full-course impromptu dinner for a hundred people. Food comes across as an invisible yet equally nerve-wracking part of political life.
Despite this, I feel that the setting is greatly underused, even with some crucial scenes playing out at Arlington Cemetery and Camp David. The character of Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas do not come across in the writing, with the transmission of historical or geographic details sometimes awkwardly handled. I’m not expecting West Wing levels of verisimilitude or anything, but a little The American President or My Fellow Americans, perhaps? It lacks a certain sensibility, particularly in the dialogue and quirks of people in such close proximity to the US president.
And I don’t want to be the person who gripes about the nuances of cultural sensitivity in a cozy with recipes at the back, but I feel that there’s some regrettable depiction of admittedly fictional Middle Eastern countries here. Most glaring of which is a banquet scene where Ollie sees the wife of a king covered from head to toe and attended by several women. She asks who the other women are and is informed that they are the queen’s handmaidens. At this Ollie reacts with, “Handmaiden? What is this, the Middle Ages?” I know why it was done–the observation pointed to an important clue–but still. Reading that passage literally made me cringe.
I’m going to give the next installment another try, in case the issues that bothered me are smoothed out and Hyzy gets into her stride. Those who are capable of turning off the nitpickiest part of their brain may enjoy the comedic trappings of this series as well.