The Wickedly Witty Sondra Gotlieb

The title of Sondra Gotlieb’s latest book, Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food and Other Addictions (McArthur & Co., 2002) is an accurate summary of its contents, and only a writer as comically gifted as Gotlieb could turn this seeming dross into gold.

A native Winnipegger who became the famous “Wife of” a Canadian diplomat, Gotlieb is deliciously self-mocking and funny as she describes many episodes related to her various addictions. Although she is also maddingly self-indulgent, she never fails to win us over, like a brilliantly devilish gossip at a dinner party.

Gotlieb’s love affair with food began when her future husband took her out to a French restaurant. “Allan handed me a spoonful of his first dish B oeufs en meurette, and I knew at that moment that I would never again follow my mother’s instructions and order the cheapest thing on the menu, as she had told me to do when on a date.”

She subsequently devotes many pages to her food obsession, and astonishes us with her Proustian ability to recollect lunches, dinners, sauces, fragrances, tastes, recipes and culinary secrets from decades past.

The book essentially stretches from her early Winnipeg days through her and her husband’s postings in Ottawa, Washington, Europe and Toronto, focusing upon a parade of dogs, houses, gardens and gastronomical adventures experienced along the way.

“Other addictions” must certainly be a coy reference to sex — Gotlieb does not shy away from describing the most intimate occurrences of her nuptual bed — as well as to her penchant for commercial delights such as Judith Lieber purses. Fashionable among Washington socialites in the 1980s, the purses retailed for between US $3,000 and $15,000; surprisingly, the author resisted the temptation to buy one.

Gotlieb has a delightfully observant eye, as when she admires the elegant and gleaming butcher shops of Geneva: “When I saw these shops I at first had no idea what I was looking at. The Genevois display their meats like they display their jewellery. Visiting a butcher shop was for me like visiting Piaget or Vacherin-Constantin.”

She also has a novel way of turning a phrase. For instance, readers may be forgiven for suspecting that a chapter called “The Squalid Brown Patch” would have something to do with dogs, or perhaps the “projectile vomiting” described so colourfully in a previous chapter. Instead, “The Squalid Brown Patch” opens the discussion of gardening that blooms so prolifically in the second half of the book.

Gotlieb unabashedly shares many details of a privileged life, and her pages are populated with an unceasing array of bigwigs, ladies of the diplomatic core, celebrities, nannies, dressmakers, chauffeurs, butlers, maids and other service people. Her prose sparkles like a gurgling brook in the bright morning sun.

Kay Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post, was a regular at the Gotlieb’s famous table during the couple’s Washington years. “Of all the embassies I have ever been to, the Gotliebs were the only one to run an intellectual salon,” she once said. “I was never bored at their embassy and would always have good conversation. That’s why I never refused an invitation.”

It’s precisely these qualities that make Dogs, Houses, Gardens, Food & Other Addictions an enjoyable read, even for those who have first encountered some of its chapters in Gotlieb’s columns in the National Post. ♦

© 2002