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Family Meal


Family Meal

Employing his trademark sensitivity and luxurious descriptions of food, sex and travel, award-winning author Bryan Washington chronicles the reunion of two friends after an unthinkable loss in FAMILY MEAL.

When Cam spots his childhood best friend, TJ, across the gay bar where he bartends, he thinks, “It’s like the m-----f----- doesn’t even recognize me.” But Cam sure does recognize TJ, even if his hair has fluffed out and he wears a smirk that Cam has never seen cross his face before. Cam is being unfair and he knows it, but even he can appreciate the rarity of the moment --- seeing someone you know intimately without them seeing you. And then, of course, TJ looks up, and the realities of their broken, discarded friendship and the reasons they have found themselves in the same bar come crashing between them.

"FAMILY MEAL is arguably [Washington's] best book yet. The dialogue is tighter than ever, with his characters speaking in slant, almost as if they are acting in a play."

As boys, Cam and TJ were next-door neighbors, but Cam’s parents were rarely around. So TJ’s Korean dad, Jin, and Black mom, Mae, became his pseudo-parents, while their home and the bakery they owned became his second home. When Cam’s parents died in a car accident, Cam essentially became their son and TJ his brother. The boys were inseparable, even through college. TJ remained in Houston while Cam studied finance in New York City, and they managed to keep in touch when Cam moved to California to pursue a banking career and TJ took on greater responsibilities at the bakery. But then they suddenly stopped speaking, even when TJ lost his father and Cam lost his boyfriend, Kai.

The manner of Kai’s death isn’t revealed to the reader until much later in the book, but what is clear is that Cam, always confident and assured, is spiraling. Drawn back to his hometown by friends of Kai’s who offer him space to grieve and a job, Cam is working and maintaining his home life, but he is also engaging in unsafe sexual encounters with strangers, avoiding food, and speaking to the ghost of his lover about everything but the most important things. Despite the lapse in their friendship, TJ can see all of this immediately, most notably the sharp lines of Cam’s skeletal frame. His concern manifests as equal parts care and anger, with the undiscussed breakdown of their friendship stoking the embers of his frustration. And Cam? He barely cares at all: about TJ, his health, his future…anything but his next fix, be it sex or substances.

As Houston is gentrified and the places that Cam and TJ love most --- the whimsical gay bars, the family-owned, diverse bakeries and restaurants --- fall victim to whitewashed establishments and obscenely priced housing developments, they keep crashing into one another’s orbit. With safe spaces disappearing before their eyes, they begin to create found families in their own networks. All the while, Cam continues to spiral, becoming sloppy at work and at home and visibly tweaking as his waistline diminishes. Then the truth about Kai’s death is revealed, and the reasons for Cam’s trauma are made horribly, painfully clear…but so, too, are the reasons that his friendship with TJ disintegrated, as well as why they both need closure, or something like it.

When tragedy strikes Cam yet again, he hits rock bottom, and TJ is there to pick him up. This is real, tangible love, but not the kind that fairy tales are written about. With Cam’s extraordinary grief forming the book’s entry point, FAMILY MEAL grows into something as lavish, dysfunctional, beautiful and transformative as its title suggests: a nourishing, satisfying, memory-making meal shared among the people who know your ugliest parts and love you just the same.

Written in four parts and narrated by Cam, TJ and even Kai, musing on his relationship from the afterlife, this is a gorgeous, transcendent novel about grief and acceptance as only Bryan Washington could write it. And in his usual, confident manner, he doesn’t really care if we agree with his characters, their coping mechanisms or what we would do in their shoes. As TJ thinks to himself, “I didn’t want to be accepted or tolerated. I just wanted to be.” Like a beloved dysfunctional family member sitting across the dinner table from you, FAMILY MEAL just is.

In his third novel, Washington is starting to exhibit a pattern in the topics he covers: grief, food, gentrification, gay relationships, feelings of isolation, and what happens when memory loses its sheen. But far from being predictable or overused, these themes grow in fascinating, flexible ways, and FAMILY MEAL is arguably his best book yet. The dialogue is tighter than ever, with his characters speaking in slant, almost as if they are acting in a play. While this style is difficult to wrangle from a technical standpoint and could result in inaccessible prose from a lesser author, Washington is careful to keep readers in on the joke, so to speak, employing his supporting characters to reveal far more about his protagonists than they ever would dream of revealing themselves.

This combination is electrifying, engaging and wonderfully stylish, evoking an author at the height of his game. It makes his heavy-hitting lines all the more powerful and speaks to broad, universal truths delivered from the most intimate of bonds, relationships and connections.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 28, 2023

Family Meal
by Bryan Washington

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593421094
  • ISBN-13: 9780593421093