WEEKEND READING: LEAH DECESARE USES THE UTENSIL CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM (UCS) TO FIND “MR. RIGHT,” PLUS HOW NOSTALGIA BOLSTERS HEALTH, COLLEGE YEARS, FIRST JOBS, AND SO MUCH MORE IN FORKS, KNIVES & SPOONS
Nostalgic, witty tale of college girlfriends and their search for Mr. Right in this debut from Leah DeCesare.
I tore through FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS mostly because DeCesare has such an easy, relatable writing style. It’s about love and growth, friendship, the murky place between childhood and adulthood, and ultimately: discovery.
Plus, the timing’s right for a pre-Valentine’s Day read.
Amy York is a freshman at Syracuse University. She’s been raised by a single dad who dishes out some timely advice the evening before taking her to college for the first time: there are three types of guys–forks, knives, and spoons. The ultimate goal is a steak knife. He calls this the Utensil Classification System (UCS). It’s lighthearted, but Amy takes it very seriously educating her roommate and other college friends about the UCS.
I was immediately thrust back in time to the last 1980s and early 1990s (when the story is set) and waxed nostalgic at the mention of Benetton sweaters, Swatch watches, Tretorns, George Michael, Aqua Net, Van Halen and so much more. DeCesare completely pegged the time period with complete accuracy.
There were girls (and guys) of all kinds–those I remember well from my own college days–and her characterizations were spot-on. I wanted to know what happened to these folks and how it all tied up in the end (my predictions were right–and then I breathed a sigh of relief). I also really enjoyed the big, boisterous Italian family described in the second-half of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS.
So whip up a chocolate mousse, or call for some take out Chinese and settle in with me and Leah as we chat about FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS.
Leslie Lindsay: Leah, the Utensil Classification System (UCS) is so original, so different and I really appreciated it. What was your inspiration for it? Was it really your dad, or something else that triggered the idea? And can you give us a brief run-down of what each category represents?
Leah DeCesare: Thanks for reading and having me, Leslie. The inspiration for FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS does come from a real talk my father gave me before sending me off to college in 1988. I wrote the scene of Tom York telling his daughter, Amy, based on how I remember my dad telling me, one difference is my mom was with us too.
In brief, the forks are the arrogant, jerky guys (we all know the forks), the spoons are geeks (remember this was the 80s way before a “geek” was cool, think Revenge of the Nerds), and the knife category is the biggest, he told me, in the knives I could find a good guy, someone who may not be as confident yet around girls, but where I’d find a guy who cared about me.
L.L.: I was completely smitten with the time period. I was in college in the mid-late 1990s, so by then we had email (but no social media) and pagers (!) but there were still so many universals with the college experience: the painted cinder block walls in dorms, the formals, rush, all of that. How did you make the decision to set the novel in this time period and say, not today, in 2018?
Leah DeCesare: My oldest daughter started college this fall – an unintended life parallel as the story starts with young college freshmen women released – and during our college tour phase, the campuses and dorms and dining halls are all so much nicer and higher end than when we were in school. But, I decided to set the story in the same years I went to college, first, because I thought it would be easier for reference since I’d lived it, that turned out not to be true. It took a ton of research to get things right and accurate – how much did a CD player cost in 1990 anyway? Truthfully, I couldn’t write the same authentic college experience set today without hanging out and planting myself on college campuses, it was more genuine since it was what I had lived.
However, beyond those more technical reasons, I also love that setting the story in a different era highlights the messages of the book. The story is ultimately about friendship and believing in yourself – something that women of all ages need to hear, and hear loudly. The fact that this takes place in the late 80s/early 90s underscores similarities of the times and themes. There is still sexual assault (don’t we know it! #metoo) and excessive drinking; there is still the need to trust others and really connect with people(not behind screens), and there is still a fervent need for women to genuinely believe we can achieve anything, that we must value ourselves, that were are worth being loved, respected and so much more.
Leah DeCesare captured me on the very first line, ‘There are three types of guys: forks, knives and spoons.’ With imagination, highly relatable characters, and witty dialogue we are taken back to our youths – reevaluating and categorizing all of our crushes. A lovely story of friendship, love, and the amazing time between childhood and adulthood.
– Dawn Lerman, bestselling author of My Fat Dad: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Family with Recipes, New York Times Well Blog columnist
L.L.: Speaking of nostalgia, I just read about there’s a restorative power of nostalgia; it contributes to feelings of optimism, which is linked to improved mood, less pain, and other wellness outcomes like lowering blood pressure and improving GI function. Who knew? Can you expand on that? What did writing about this time period do for you?
Leah DeCesare: Wow! That’s great to hear and it makes sense to me. Books take us to other places and times and allow our minds and hearts to experience new things, to walk in another’s footsteps, to empathize, consider life from another point of view, and to stir self reflection.
Writing FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS definitely let me retrieve and relive old, happy memories. Writing pulled me deeply into thoughts and feelings of my college years, that playful time of youth, and life as a new adult in New York City. Tidbits and kernels of scenes were gleaned from real life memories and still make me smile. I love that time period, as well as that time of my life — though I’m happy where I am now and I’d never want to return.
I like that there’s science behind what we already sense, and I like that reading my book can help contribute to a reader’s wellbeing.
L.L.: Along those lines, I was thinking, ‘oh, this would be a great book for a younger girl as she navigates the complexities of late high school/college.’ And then I thought, ‘maybe not’ (due to some more mature themes). The time period made me think the story was for women in their late 30s-early 40s with the 1980s references. Who do you see as your ideal reader? And what genre would you identify FORKS, KNIVES, and SPOONS?
Leah DeCesare: So, initially I was thinking the target reader would be women finishing college and entering their first post-college jobs, starting to settle into a career path and finding a partner to love. I also figured there would be interest from “women of a certain age” who had lived this pre-Internet world, so very different from life today. I had beta readers of both age groups and found that the younger women enjoyed the time period even without the nostalgia that older women experienced.
In traveling and talking with readers about the book, I’ve found some wonderful things happening: mothers and daughters are bonding over the story, younger women tend to gravitate and to use UCS while older women savor the throw-back to earlier times, and there is a big population of women who are in their 40s/50s who appreciate both the nostalgia AND the UCS as they return to the dating world after divorce or loss of a spouse. It was unexpected, but there’s also been a high school readership. I had a woman get in touch with me last spring because she was buying a dozen books for her daughter and her daughter’s friends as a high school graduation gift.
As for genre, I don’t love the term chick-lit because it seems to devalue both the story/writing and the reader – as if it’s simple or fluff. I think of FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS as book club fiction, women’s fiction. I like smart stories about women who grow, learn about themselves and change through the course of the story and that’s what I tried to deliver in FORKS, KNIVES, AND SPOONS which is ultimately about women believing in themselves without tying their value to a man. I believe there are a lot of angles and substance, though the book is not heavy, that readers can ponder, evaluate, discuss, and apply to their own lives.
L.L.: I can remember feeling a bit like Amy in college…wondering if I’d ever get a ring. At the tail-end of college, I attended the first wedding of one of my friends and was such a dud at the reception. I didn’t even have a boyfriend and she was getting married! Is college the time to meet one’s spouse? Why do you think we feel that pressure?
Leah DeCesare: You ask the best questions! I’ve pondered this a lot. My parents met at the freshman welcome picnic in college and so on some level, I think I expected to meet my husband in college — I didn’t. I think the opportunity to meet a lot of options for spouses in college makes it a time ripe for meeting “the one.” I definitely wonder if younger women still feel any sense pressure or desire to find a spouse while in school. I wrote an article about this very topic if you’re interested:
Husband-Hunting on Campus.
L.L.: I adored the big, boisterous Italian family. In that sense, it reminded me of some of Lisa Scottoline’s work. And made me super-hungry for a bowl of pasta. [Good thing we’re going to the Italian Village in downtown Chicago tonight.] And then I read your acknowledgements section and see that it’s peppered with plenty of Italian names. Something tells me you know this Italian family quite intimately?
Leah DeCesare: Ha – yes! My steak knife, I mean, my husband, is 100% Italian and I’m about half+ Italian. I absolutely modeled those scenes of Joey’s family after his family, perhaps amped up a little bit, then again, perhaps not! Those were some of my favorite scenes to write and are still some of my favorites in the book. Anyone who’s got some Italian in their family will relate to those loud, loving moments. They still make me laugh when I read them.
L.L.: What do you still pine for from your college days, even a little bit? What are you glad is over?
Leah DeCesare: It’s hard to believe how far removed I am from my college days. I guess if there’s something I miss, it’s the fun of constantly having people all around, of meeting new people and the spontaneity and the social spirit of school. I also love traveling and my semester abroad was one of the best times of my life.
I love learning and classes and reading, but I had three majors in college and always had a very full course load. I recall the stress of always, always, always, having something I should be doing except on Christmas and summer breaks, so I can say I don’t miss that! Though I guess I always have something I should be doing now, too, but it feels different.
L.L.: Leah, it’s been a pleasure. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
Leah DeCesare: I’d love to just mention to your readers that if they like a book, please review it. Those little stars really, really matter to authors. So, on behalf of authors everywhere – THANK YOU!
L.L.: Thanks again and hope your steak knife treats you well this Valentine’s Day!
Leah DeCesare: It has been such fun – your questions were thoughtful and fantastic! Read more…