Alyson Richman’s latest novel, The Secret of Clouds, is, as she puts it, her ‘love letter to teachers.’ Exploring the transformative bond between an ill child, Yuri, and his tutor, Maggie, the novel was inspired by Richman’s extraordinary friend, the type of person you don’t come across every day. Christina is a third grade teacher, who, each year, has her class write a letter to their eighteen-year-old selves. Christina then keeps the letters and mails them to the children upon their graduation from high school. Richman was understandably intrigued by Christina’s commitment to creating such a moving time capsule for each of her students and has since revealed that Maggie, the passionate, dedicated teacher in The Secret of Clouds is directly inspired by Christina. But Christina’s dedication to her students is not the only thing about her that helped to shape the novel.
Christina comes from an Italian-American family for whom food is, she tells me, “a priority, the number one way to reinforce in family and friends that we care.” Family meals are made to bond over, and when Christina was growing up, they were an unmissable daily ritual. Shopping and cooking for events and holidays were family activities, as was the growing of organic herbs and vegetables, the creation of individual menus and place settings for each dinner guest. Christina’s mother, Josephine, was the most instrumental in cultivating the family’s love of food; to this day, she continues to experiment with new and exciting dishes to try out on friends, family, and anyone else who might pass through the house. If a teacher calls to see one of Christina’s children, they will inevitably leave with a tray of scones, the existence of which Christina will be unaware of until the teacher informs her of the kind gesture days later.
Upon getting to know them, Richman too became a beneficiary of the family’s love of food. “If I was down, lasagne would appear at my front door,” she recalls. “If I did some extra carpooling for Christina’s kids, Josephine would bake cookies.” Richman was inspired by the way in which she observed food operating as a language of love for Christina and her family. “One of the things I’m interested in,” she explains, “is trying to explore the different ways we communicate and the different forms of languages in life.” This curiosity abounds in her work; for example, her novel The Garden of Letters, which follows a cellist in World War II Italy and explores how people in the resistance used creative means to transmit essential information. In The Secret of Clouds, Richman wanted to show the ways in which we communicate when words escape us. When something happens in the story that leaves the characters at a loss for words, Maggie’s mother (in the tradition of Josephine) makes lasagne as a way of reaching out and showing care.
Over the years, Christina has found that Josephine’s philosophy of food as caregiving never fails. When a cousin of her mother’s had complained to Josephine about her children being too busy to make time to come and see her, Josephine advised, “cook for them, don’t complain if they have to leave early, and they will come.” And it worked. The cousin came back the next week, saying, “Josephine that was the best advice. I just said I”m making a pot of sauce and I’m making plenty of meatballs and before I knew it I had a full house! I think you’re right. I think I have to cook.”
“If you think about it,’ Christina continues, “in our busy lives, we all have to eat, you wind up having quality family time you might not have had anyway.”
The Secret of Clouds also uses food to bridge cultural divides. When Maggie first arrives in Yuri’s home, his father is making kasha, a fortifying meal from his native Ukraine; he invites her to try some. Later, Yuri explains that because his father is Jewish and his mother is Greek Orthodox, they have created their own Christmas tradition of cooking and eating pierogis. Richman says she wanted to “highlight what unites rather than divides… Food mirrors the sentiment that regardless of where you come from, or who you are, it’s something that we all connect with. Food is a universal language, easily understood through our own personal traditions.”
Christina tells me that although her family is entirely Italian, part of the joy they take in cooking and eating is becoming acquainted with other cultures. “We have an ‘international cuisine’ flair in our family. We have such appreciation for food from everywhere. [My mother] even made corned beef and cabbage on St Patrick’s Day! She loves cooking and learning about the way other people cook. It’s the perfect hobby for her because it involves showing people she cares.”
It was an honor to speak with the author and gain insight into the inspiration for this beautiful novel, to deeper understand the myriad ways in which human beings connect and take care of each other through the universal language of food. If you’d like to learn more about how Christina inspired The Secret of Clouds, check out our article ‘The Incredible Teacher Who Inspired Alyson Richman’s The Secret of Clouds‘ here.
Grab your paperback copy of The Secret of Clouds, which includes Josephine’s lasagne recipe! Make it yourself at home or with your book club, and show those around you just how much you care.