“Off the Menu”: The Right Book at the Right Time

Every five years I look at my life.

It’s not something I schedule. I’ve always rolled my eyes at perfect type “A”s and their five-year plans. “That’s so not me,” I scoff.

Except maybe it is.

I’m a type A by nature. Much as I try to change this, I can’t. And almost by the clock, every five years I evaluate.

A little over five years ago, I met Stacey Ballis at a signing for her book The Spinster Sisters. I was a fan of hers and very excited to meet her, and she kindly listened as I stumbled over words like “awesome”, “relatable” and “oh my God it’s really you!” Sitting next to me in the audience were two other phenomenal authors: Jen Lancaster and Laura Caldwell. I decided right then and there that I too wanted to write.

I was at a crossroads then: transitioning from one career path to another, sort of interested in writing. Skip ahead five years: I’m a freelance writer with a demanding day job. And I think I have to make a change. Last week I picked up Ms. Ballis’ latest, Off the Menu.

And wouldn’t you know, she knows just what I’m thinking.

Alana Ostermann, Off the Menu‘s funny and strong protagonist, isn’t unhappy. She has her own home in Chicago, a devoted dog named Dumpling and plenty of friends. Her job as assistant to celebrity chef Patrick Conlon is extremely demanding, but also intense and satisfying. She’s close to her family and is able to help out her Russian immigrant parents thanks to her generous and hard-earned salary.

But Alana wants more. She makes a hobby of lampooning online dating profiles, but wishes for the right man. She values her work and her boss, but questions the demands that threaten to overshadow her life. And when new career and romantic opportunities arise, Alana wonders how she can balance everything, make huge choices and move toward the life she really wants.

I’ve loved Ballis’ voice since I picked up her first novel, Inappropriate Men, back in 2005. Her heroines are sharp and relatable, intelligent and questioning without being whiny. Alana is no different. And yet I found myself more emotional reading Off the Menu than I’ve been with Ballis’ other books.

Don’t get me wrong: I can barely scramble an egg. I’m a cat person. I don’t own my home and I’m on a break from dating, online or otherwise. I’m also eight years younger than Alana. But more and more these days, I find myself evaluating my life. Between a full-time job and freelance writing, I run around a lot. I’m busy, almost excessively so. I dream of being a novelist, but lately life is getting in the way.

Slow down, my best friend begs me. Relax. I’m worried about you. He’s not wrong: I worry about me too. I lose sleep. Like Alana, I’m not unhappy: I’m employed, live in my favorite city in the world and have a loving family and fantastic friends. That said, I wonder if I’m making the life I really want.

I won’t spoil Off the Menu for you. I will say this: I want to give Ballis a big hug for reminding me that the big stuff doesn’t happen overnight. That small steps lead to larger ones. That no matter how old you are, how established, how settled, it’s never too late to change.

Off the Menu is now available in paperback and ebook. For more about Stacey Ballis, visit her website and blog.

By The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat ( and talks about movies on The Film Yap ( Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

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