By Jeanne Ray (Shaye Areheart Books, $19.95, 272 pp.)
Cakes have been showing up at novelist Jeanne Ray’s in-store and television appearances as she travels around the country to promote her new book, appropriately titled Eat Cake. “Sometimes they’re cakes from my books, sometimes from outside my book,” Ray said in a recent phone interview from her home in Nashville. “Cake seems to be a very good theme.” Eat Cake is about habitual cake-baker Ruth Hopson, a woman who gets the urge to bake at the drop of a hat. She even pictures herself inside a giant cake when life seems too stressful. As the protagonist of Ray’s third novel, she has plenty of reasons to retreat into both real and imaginary baked goods.
Ruth has no time for people who skip dessert, especially a slice of cake. In her view, such people “have completely lost touch with joy.” Ruth is the beloved wife of Sam, slightly beleaguered daughter of Hollis and largely ignored mother of teenager Camille. Her family is not exactly driving her crazy, but there are moments when they come close. The family, meanwhile, is so fed up with cake, Ruth finds herself resorting to tricks to keep them eating it. One evening, she omits icing and downplays the cake of the day, rationalizing that “it was carrot cake, after all, which is practically a serving of vegetables.”
Still, Ray describes the ingredients and the mixing of the cake in a way that makes it sound utterly delicious. Extraordinary cakes are mentioned throughout the book, and recipes are included at the back, all of which raises the question: Which came firstthe cakes or the character?
“The ideas came together,” Ray says. “I wanted a woman with a special talent that was kind of hidden.” The author says she has always been a baker, having learned from her mother. She in turn taught her children, one of whom is prize-winning novelist Ann Patchett.
Eat Cake and Ray’s previous book, Step-Ball-Change, share more than a few similarities. Both involve a long-married and generally happy couple. Their children are doing well, though perhaps still floundering a bit. Various problems kick in, then an out-of-town family member appears with his or her own crisis, threatening to push the precarious situation over the edge. At the center of both stories is a sixtysomething woman trying to maintain balance as this multigenerational craziness swirls around her. Finally, someone tangentially attached to the household offers encouragement and/or unflinching reason, and helps put things in perspective. In both books, this has been left to an African American character.
This isn’t to imply that Ray’s books are overly formulaic: The Hopsons are not the McSwains of the earlier book. One could, however, imagine the two families as neighbors, or friends. The similarities are more a case of Ray writing what she knows; when she writes about the rediscovery of self and purposeparticularly after some potentially shattering or otherwise significant eventshe is writing from experience.
“It has happened to me over and over again,” says Ray, a longtime nurse. “It felt like [it all] would dissolve around me, and indeed it did at times. Certainly as a nurse I see it happen to patients all the time.” Eat Cake, according to Ray, is the most autobiographical of her books. “Ruth really is me. Substitute writing for cake baking, and that’s me. I’ve written all my life, though never with the idea that I would sell anything.”
A year ago, Ray said her next bookthe one that became Eat Cakewould be her last. “I did say that, and I meant it sincerely at the time,” she says, adding that she has since changed her mind. “I’m going to write another book; the story has already begun in my head. It’s going to be Julie and Romeo [Ray’s first novel, a modern-day version of Shakespeare’s famous tale with sixtysomething lovers] five years later.” She is still anxious about submitting manuscripts, saying she never would have had the nerve to go through with it, had her daughter not led the way. “Ann literally forced my hand,” Ray says, laughing. She hasn’t quit her nursing job, by the way. “I still try to work once a week, it’s a very integral part of my life.”
With any luck, writing novels will also continue to be a part of Ray’s life. For now, readers can savor Eat Cake, in which she demonstrates her love of baking, writing about cakes with the same passion Frances Mayes exhibits for food in her books about Tuscany. Ray also displays her knack for describing families, capturing their shared characteristics and people’s tendency to overlook each other’s talents. Most importantly, she portrays families realizing their sometimes forgotten fondness for each other.
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