There are many reasons to bake: to feed; to create; to impress; to nourish; to define ourselves; and, sometimes, it has to be said, to perfect. But often we bake to fill a hunger that would be better filled by a simple gesture from a dear one. We bake to love and be loved.
In 1966, Kathleen Eaden, cookery writer and wife of a supermarket magnate, published The Art of Baking, her guide to nurturing a family by creating the most exquisite pastries, biscuits and cakes.
Now, five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs Eaden. There's Jenny, facing an empty nest now her family has flown; Claire, who has sacrificed her dreams for her daughter; Mike, trying to parent his two kids after his wife's death; Vicki, who has dropped everything to be at home with her baby boy; and Karen, perfect Karen, who knows what it's like to have nothing and is determined her façade shouldn't slip.
As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, making the choicest choux bun seems the least of the contestants' problems. For they will learn - as Mrs Eaden did before them - that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.
Yes, this engrossing novel is about a baking competition but it’s not on TV and nobody is eliminated. That’s an important part of the story, because it allows true friendships to build up between the contestants without the reader wondering if they can be genuine. This warmth and support was a real feature of the book and makes all the lead characters likeable. There are five contestants, all with very different backgrounds and with different reasons for entering.
In the 1960s, Kathleen Eaden was an iconic cook and the culinary figurehead of her husband’s grocery chain. On the surface, her life was perfection but as we journey through the book and read the extracts from her book that introduce each section and learn about her life, we find a very different picture lies beneath the surface. In just the same way, we find each of the contestants has a troubled life, from which baking is a form of escape.
Here I come to my slight sense of disappointment with the book and the feeling that more could be made of some of the characters. Mike and Claire in particular are always on the periphery whereas with a story of this nature, I think and expect that equal weight should be given to each character. I found also that the characters were somewhat confusing – I had to flick to and fro at the start to remind myself about each one.
Throughout the book we are tempted by all manner of culinary delights – not in the form of recipes which would break up the flow but in descriptions of the competitors trying out their various recipes and techniques. The theme is held strongly throughout, with each section based on a different baking technique. The competitive element comes in each week, where the best two cooks feature in YouTube videos; the outright winner becomes the new Mrs Eadon. Of course, as in other great baking competitions, we have an elegant older female judge and a handsome and charismatic younger male judge, although the part they play is minimal.
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed this debut novel and was sad when I reached to the end; each story is compelling in its own right and the writing is sensitive and descriptive. I felt there were unresolved stories – what about Claire and Mike… could it be that a sequel is planned? If not a sequel, I am still excited about seeing what Sarah Vaughan comes up with for her second novel.