A pastry chef with an uncanny ability returns to her hometown to make sense of her future while delving into the past.
With her marriage on the rocks, Claire “Neely” O’Neil leaves New York City behind to open up her dream bakery in Millcreek Valley, Ohio. Though she's unsure of the fate of her relationship, her bakery, Rainbow Cake, is a success in the town’s thriving bridal district. Neely is able to “read” people by connecting feelings to flavors, which helps her pair the perfect cake and frosting with any customer. This allows her to construct a unique flavor profile to help someone cope with the complexities of his or her life: “Every flavor, I knew, was a shortcut to a feeling. Sorrow. Joy. Anticipation. Fear.” In many cases, this skill proves helpful, though Neely is overwhelmed by a ubiquitous sour flavor that she doesn’t quite understand. The narrative alternates between Neely’s first-person accounts in the present and a complicated secondary story told in the third person that begins in 1908 and interrupts what had been a steady pace. The dueling storyline starts with a unique piece of jewelry and then delves into the young lives of Olive and Edie Habig in the 1930s. As with some of Neely’s more adventurous flavor combinations, it requires the reader to take a leap of faith that the two tales will eventually converge. Though the path toward clarity is long and winding, it does get there in the end. Neely’s “gift,” and her insistence on following through with every sense that she experiences, complicates what might have been a charming novel. The prose is at its best when it focuses on the smells and tastes of the bakery—the decadent buttercream, the elegant cakes, and the whirr of the espresso machine constantly in motion.
Contrasting flavors struggle for dominance in Fertig’s debut novel.