For reference, second-person narration is when an author addresses the text to “you.” Imperative mood is when a sentence is formed as an order or a command, e.g. “Do this.”
Second-person narration is almost an anathema to the rules of writing. Literary greats like Italo Calvino got away with it, but only because it was a novelty at the time. In the modern day, it comes across as pretentious and arty, valuing style over substance.
When a piece of writing like “Recipe for a Dinner Party” by Shauna Bickley comes along and blends second-person narration with the imperative mood to not only tell the reader what they’re doing, but command them to do it, the reader is tempted to throw hands up and book down and exclaim, “Trying too hard!”
Bear with me. The story not only uses these strange literary conventions, but uses them so well that the story could not possibly be told without them.
The plot of “Recipe for A Dinner Party” is rather straightforward. A woman, Jennifer, prepares a dinner for ten at the request of her husband, Steven. She rethinks her life choices as she prepares the meal, and realizes that she’s lost herself and become a trophy to her unfaithful spouse. At the end, she decides to leave him.
If I read this story in traditional third person, I would not find it the slightest bit interesting.
Written as a recipe? It’s fascinating.
The second-person narration and imperatives in the story combine to create a heart-wrenching, gripping tale as the reader watches a woman wrestle with one of the hardest decisions of her life. This uncomfortable narration reveals that perhaps we dislike second person because we don’t like being told what to do, and it uses that fact to thrust the protagonist’s emotional state onto the reader in a way that feels natural for its unnaturalness.
“It all starts with the entree, he would say. You set the tone of the meal.” The story, appropriately enough, opens with the entree and then tells the reader exactly why it did so. Jennifer, the “you” in the story, cooks spaghetti with some extra virgin olive oil so “the pasta can move freely while cooking.” Even on this first page of the story, the parallelism between Jennifer and the meal is apparent. The early paragraphs describe the financial freedom and new experiences Jennifer experienced during her early days with Steven, the “moving freely” that she was able to do. Her obvious distress comes across in the “ferocious boil” of the water, the heat mirroring the anger simmering inside her and cooking her from the inside out. In the same way that the recipe orders her to complete tasks in a rigid order, her life has become a series of demands to meet and steps to follow to keep up appearances and produce the desired result.
The reader at this point feels uncomfortable with the “you” narrative. The protagonist has been given a name and backstory unique to her, so we know that “you” is not referring to us. Yet the text still speaks in the second person, as if addressing us directly, forcing a link between us and Jennifer. The forced nature of this identification mirrors the forced life Jennifer leads.
The story continues in the imperative recipe style, ordering Jennifer to cook various aspects of the meal and further linking her life to steps in the cooking process: “Drop Steven in the boiling water until his skin peels off easily.” “Drink the rest of the wine.” But the narrative begins to add more and more commentary, of the sort that wouldn’t appear in a traditional recipe book: “It’s important that the oil should be extra-virgin, though Steven doesn’t differentiate these days.”
Just before preparing dessert, the story includes a cooking note that provides a bit of leeway in preparation methods: “If you don’t care about him, you can make this dish several hours ahead of time.” This offers Jennifer, and vicariously the reader, the first possibility of another option other than following the recipe by rote. In providing a second route, it also provides hope.
Once we reach the chocolate mousse, the second-to-last recipe, Jennifer takes a break from cooking entirely to read and snuggle with her children on the couch. This section contains no recipe steps whatsoever, and instead features Jennifer and the kids eating the chocolate that would have been used in the recipe. This complete break from the imperative tone comes like a reprieve to the reader, who feels pent up from the instructive style of the story so far, and it shows Jennifer in her natural, organic state, out from under the bounds imposed by the recipe and her high-society life.
The story’s final section returns to the stilted tone of the recipe, implying that Jennifer has chosen not to escape. This gives the reader a last moment of discomfort with the imperatives of the story before Jennifer breaks free of the bounds of the recipe entirely: “No time to make pastry, so use the frozen cases that Steven despises.” She takes a step to ignore the recipe, and that leads to the climax and end of the story, where Jennifer finishes plating the meal and then shatters her wedding glasses against the wall, raining shards over the whole thing and rendering it inedible. Though the story doesn’t specify this, she presumably then leaves.
The breakdown in recipe format parallels Jennifer’s break from her imposed life, and the writing style perfectly mirrors that by relaxing the imperative in moments of reprieve and returning to it in moments of anger. The reader’s frustration at being told what to do ebbs and flows with Jennifer’s feelings about her life, perfectly synchronizing the reader-character relationship. At the end, when she escapes the confines of her life, we also escape the uncomfortable second-person imperative narration, and breathe a sigh of relief with her.
While second-person narration does not work in most cases, “Recipe for a Dinner Party” uses it artfully, as a tool to link character and reader more deeply than mere sympathy could. Bickley’s work forces the reader to participate in the story, and the reader’s natural resistance to this force creates symbiosis with the story’s content. It is a brilliant idea, masterfully executed, and an example of experimental literature at its finest.
This story’s writing style does something I’ve never seen before, which is what literary fiction strives to achieve. Many other essays could be written about the themes and stylistic choices therein, and I hope you’ll give it a read and add your thoughts in the comments on this blog.
The paperback edition of Awesome Allshorts: Last Days, Lost Ways is now available. Buy it on Amazon or find links to other book outlets here. “Recipe for a Dinner Party” is only one of the great pieces included within.
All quotes taken from the Awesome Allshorts: Last Days, Lost Ways Anthology. “Recipe for a Dinner Party” by Shauna Bickley (AIA Publishing, 2014).