One of my favorite casual dining experiences is at the Red, Hot & Blue, a local BBQ chain. Their pulled pig sandwich is fantastic, but truth be told, my favorite part of the dish is the redskin potato salad that comes on the side. Delicious.
Two books I’ve recently read remind me a little of the Red, Hot & Blue. While their main story lines provided great, satisfying reads, I found myself enjoying their humorous “side dishes” just as much.
Let me explain.
In Beauty Shop for Rent, Laura Bowers tells the story of 15-year-old Abbey Garner and her Granny Po, who learn to take control of their own destinies as the small-town beauty shop Granny runs is transformed into a modern-day salon.
Throughout the book, Bowers injects comic relief in the form of a quiz Abbey likes to take in one of the tabloids. Each issue poses a Hypothetical Question of the Week, complete with a variety of silly answers. For example: If you were to be tortured for twenty-four hours, which technique would you find most painful? Being stuck in a room with fifty kindergartners in squeaky shoes, or with fifty obnoxiously loud eaters, or with twenty toddlers rubbing Styrofoam together?
These questions cracked me up and added to my enjoyment of the book, even though they did nothing to advance the plot or illuminate its theme. Of course, they did make the reader stop and think about Important Questions. (For the record, one toddler rubbing Styrofoam together would be torture enough for me. I get shivers just thinking about it … like fingernails on a blackboard.)
The Girlfriend Project, by Robin Friedman, uses a similar device. In this story, formerly nerdy Reed Walton is taller, better looking and, well, less nerdy, as he enters his senior year of high school, and he has to learn to handle his newfound popularity.
Threaded into the main story is a running gag between Reed and his Grandma (another grandmother!) as they brainstorm for a contest to develop New Jersey’s new state motto. Among my favorites: New Jersey: You Got a Problem with That? and New Jersey: Most of Our Elected Officials Have Not Been Indicted. (BTW, the books says lots of nice things about New Jersey … and part of the charm of what is perhaps the most misunderstood state in the union is that its citizens are not afraid to laugh at themselves.)
These types of “side dishes” are lots of fun to read, but of course, they are not to be thrown into a book willy nilly. They must ring true for the characters and be inserted into the story in a way that does not detract from the main plot, but complements it. Both Bowers and Friedman proved themselves to be master chefs in this regard.