By Judith Fertig
Author’s website: www.judithfertig.com
Brought to you by OBS Reviewer Jeanie
Claire “Neely” O’Neil is a pastry chef of extraordinary talent. Every great chef can taste shimmering, elusive flavors that most of us miss, but Neely can “taste” feelings—cinnamon makes you remember; plum is pleased with itself; orange is a wake-up call. When flavor and feeling give Neely a glimpse of someone’s inner self, she can customize her creations to help that person celebrate love, overcome fear, even mourn a devastating loss.
Maybe that’s why she feels the need to go home to Millcreek Valley at a time when her life seems about to fall apart. The bakery she opens in her hometown is perfect, intimate, just what she’s always dreamed of—and yet, as she meets her new customers, Neely has a sense of secrets, some dark, some perhaps with tempting possibilities. A recurring flavor of alarming intensity signals to her perfect palate a long-ago story that must be told.
Neely has always been able to help everyone else. Getting to the end of this story may be just what she needs to help herself.
When Cake Therapist opened, I had the impression that the author is a highly-intuitive individual with a talent for putting the right words together to evoke maximum connection with the reader. I lost that impression for a while, regaining it before the novel ended. Some of the descriptives are amazing, and the feelings of Claire ‘Neely’ O’Neil as she begins her new life in her grandmother’s home and her new Rainbow Cake bakery are shared with transparent intensity.
Neely left behind the glamor of New York City and her husband, Luke, an acclaimed NFL star, for her hometown of Millcreek Valley, Ohio which had become a centre for all things bridal. An extremely talented and trained pastry chef, Neely is opening the shop of her dreams, Rainbow Cake, hoping to make connections with Carriage Hill society families and the country club, catering primarily to weddings then to events of all occasions. Neely has the gift that she shared with her grandmother. She could “taste” the personality or driving emotions of people that she met, choosing spices and flavorings that matched them.
Neely’s long-time friend in Millcreek Valley, Roshonda, and high school friend Gavin, who had left corporate America to return home, provided invaluable help, including the interior design and renovation of the bakery. Gavin was also priceless when it came to his marketing and photo design expertise. Neely also had a baker, Norb, and Jett, a teen who could learn and provide elegant designs in various cake decorating pipings. Maggie would run the day-to-day operations of the bakery, keeping Neely free to handle the brides-to-be, deliveries and logistics, and sales. Then Ben Tranter came back into her life, as a friend, and Neely was reminded of the early days when she first met Luke. She continues to work out her relationship, or lack thereof, with the husband she left behind even while studying and receiving the gift of flavors when relating to the new brides.
Judith Fertig is a seasoned cookbook author, and Cake Therapist is her first fiction offering. Even those of us who are cooking-challenged can see how thoroughly the author knows the substance and essence of baking. Her style of writing is inviting with regards to the conversations and relationships, and the thoughts of Neely were sometimes so descriptive that one could taste and feel as she did. Lines such as “Flavor was the way people like me made sense of the world” and “…voluptuous vanilla that your sharp-edged self could sink into like a pillow” hinted at the richness of relationship.-
The characters were not quite fully developed, I felt, as I had a hard time getting into any of them no matter how hard I tried. This reader was nearly through with the book before becoming invested in some of the characters. Neely was beginning to work through many situations from her past, including her absent father and the feelings that Ben once had for her in their younger years, as well as the needs of others near her, such as Jett.
I did appreciate the men and women in the historical stories, but had a hard time understanding what those stories had to do with the present day until much later in the novel. I liked some of the seemingly unconnected characters, but there still seemed to always be something that tied them together that this reader had no inkling of. There were a couple times when catching a revealed detail that I could guess how some of the stories were related, but nothing solid. I will say that the ending was somewhat satisfying as the mysteries of the past were brought together into the present and Neely’s heart had time to reflect. I recommend this to those readers who enjoy relationship novels centered around specialty baking with a bit of history and romance, characters with hidden depths and mystery. It would be interesting to see if the author writes a follow-up novel to show us how some of the open relationship challenges might grow or be resolved.