In this nicely wrought debut, a young widow emerges from her grief thanks to the intrusion of a nine-year-old neighbor and an unwinnable cooking contest.
As the novel opens, Rose-Ellen, Zell to her friends, nearly burns down her house. Attempting to enter the Polly Pinch Desserts That Warm the Soul Baking Contest (a satire of the perky Rachael Ray), Zell doesn’t notice there’s a wrapped present in her preheating oven. The present was left over a year ago by her late husband Nick in a favorite hiding place from the noncooking Zell, and now it is a cindered mess, left unopened and thrown in the attic. The fire serves as a happy catalyst—she begins to reconnect with old friends whom she’s pushed away, and she meets her new neighbor Ingrid, the little girl whose misdelivered Polly Pinch magazine inspired Zell’s attempt at baking. It’s not the baking that interests either of them—Zell wants the $20,000 cash prize to donate to a Hurricane Katrina relief fund—Nick, who worked for their small-town Massachusetts newspaper, was killed in a freak accident while photographing the rebuilding in New Orleans—while Ingrid is obsessed with Polly Pinch because the motherless girl is convinced Polly is her real mom. Zell goes along with this (though she admits, if the redheaded, freckled Polly Pinch were African-American, she would look an awful lot like Ingrid), but the wild story alienates Ingrid at school, and so she and Zell bond and begin baking together. While Ingrid's hunky dad is busy with law school, Zell, her beloved greyhound Ahab and Ingrid spend countless hours in the kitchen creating perfectly inedible desserts. In a story about loneliness, the two are a perfect fit, both attempting in their own ways to re-create connections to their missing loved ones. Then the unthinkable happens—they finally make something good enough to get in the runoffs and are invited on the show, where Ingrid can finally meet her “mother.”
Quietly charming, with a dash of romance.