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A lovely winter read from Cape Breton's Lesley Crewe

A smiling woman stands in front of a bookcase full of books.
Lesley Crewe
Cape Breton's Lesley Crewe's new novel is "Recipe for a Good Life."

Lesley Crewe 15th novel is Recipe for a Good Life. She lives in Homeville, Nova Scotia. Her books chronicle the ordinary moments of life.

GRAND RAPIDS — “I wanted to celebrate the women that I’ve grown up with,” said author Lesley Crewe on the KAXE Morning Show.

Recipe for a Good Life is Crewe’s 15th novel and centers on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, where Crewe herself lives. She describes it as a love letter to the women who have always kept the kettles warm and the neighbors fed.

“When this book came out, I had a little launch at our local Legion [in a] little fishing village down the road, and 250 people showed up because I mentioned their relatives’ names,” she said.

In the historic records the women were listed by their husband’s names, and Crewe explained she made the choice to use only their first names, to give the women credit for their work.

“I can make people laugh and I can make people cry, but that’s real life, you know. That’s what happens. You’re crying in the morning and you’re laughing in the afternoon.”
Lesley Crewe

The story

Main character Kitty is a bestselling mystery writer writing under a nom de plume and living in 1950s Montreal when we meet her at the beginning of Recipe for a Good Life. She’s married to her childhood sweetheart, a movie star who is rarely home. Even with her writing success, Kitty is feeling lost, and it takes her publisher setting up some time away in Cape Breton for her to unravel the truth of her life.

Book cover of novel set in the 1950s in Cape Breton and Montreal, Recipe for a Good Life.
The 15th novel from Cape Breton writer Lesely Crewe is "Recipe for a Good Life."

When she arrives in the tiny Nova Scotian town, she finds a leaky, drafty cabin and a party line that allows all the townspeople to know her business. Her closest neighbors immediately take her into their own family and Kitty begins to understand she had been missing real connection to people in her life in Montreal.

Crewe said the book is about loneliness and belonging. “She’s not exactly happy, but she doesn’t realize that she’s kind of estranged from her dad, and things are not working,” she said of Kitty.

Key to the story of Recipe for a Good Life is the party line. The party line was a shared telephone line serving from two to 20 parties, where each household had its own ring. Party lines could be entertainment, as neighbors could hear each other's conversations, and — like the character of Ethel in the novel — could get into everybody’s business.

“I love that character because we all have one. We all have an Ethel in our community who loves to listen,” she said. And everyone knows she is listening.

This storyline came from Crewe’s family history. Her grandmother’s party line had an Ethel, too. But their nosy neighbor was also the only person in the neighborhood to have a cuckoo clock — a recognizable sound that gave them away.

“What else you gonna do on lonely winter nights?” Crewe said.

"Listen to the full KAXE interview above"

The time and place

Crewe grew up in Montreal, but as a child she traveled every summer to Cape Breton, and she knew she would someday live there. “It’s just a beautiful little place, the very edge of North America. The next stop is England.”

She described life in a rural place as connected and gritty.

“You have to fend for yourself,” she said, noting she grew up surrounded by strong women with a mother who was a teacher. The era in which the novel is set has always intrigued Crewe.

“I wrote about the ‘50s because I love it. Because everybody smoked.”

She then described how a cigarette as a prop can be a tool for a writer. “There’s nothing better than having an argument,” she said, “stubbing out your cigarette, or you know, [being] really annoyed or blowing smoke in the air.”

In the KAXE Morning Show conversation, co-host Kari Hedlund was intrigued by the role of women during the 1950s and asked Crewe to elaborate on the inspiration for her characters.

The women Crewe grew up with were strong, independent sorts. Even though they were homemakers, they were also involved in things like the Women’s Institutes of Nova Scotia. This organization still exists today with the goal to enhance the quality of life for women.

Crewe explained how these women were the reason electricity came to Cape Breton. Through research, she read a letter of thanks to the organization and found other projects they supported, like safe milk for children and training of potential leaders.

The setting and the characters are what draw readers to Crewe’s work.

“This is why people love my books. They recognize themselves,” she said. “ ... I can make people laugh and I can make people cry, but that’s real life, you know. That’s what happens. You’re crying in the morning and you’re laughing in the afternoon.”

Crewe said she’s not writing about anything spectacular, but the places and the people she knows. “It doesn’t matter where you live. We all suffer through the same things. We all get joy from the same things.”

Readers can join Crewe in an upcoming Zoom reading of Recipe for a Good Life on Jan. 31.

Listen to the full conversation above for more book recommendations as well.

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Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.