Minneapolis homemaker Ruth Hopson has a very good life: a loving husband, two healthy children, and the comfortable home she keeps for them all. But even the nicest life has its stresses, and Ruth takes refuge from hers in cake: baking cakes, inventing new cake recipes, and even visualizing herself in the center of a giant bundt cake.
A rapid series of events upends Ruth’s orderly life: her mother, a victim of violent crime, comes to live with the family; her husband, suddenly downsized from his hospital-administrator career, veers off into a mid-life crisis; and most disruptively, her long-estranged gadabout father suffers a debilitating accident and must come live with the family–and the ex-wife he abandoned long years before–to recuperate.
With her whole world shaken out its customary grooves, Ruth’s instinct is to retreat into her happy cake world–but can she find a way to make cake a shelter for her whole family?
I loved this book–completely and uncritically. It’s probably the most sentimental book you’ll ever see me recommend–and possibly the most sentimental review I’ll ever write. This book made an utter sap of me, and I don’t care, I loved it that much.
There’s not much to this slender novel; the only thing thinner than some of the characters is the plot. It’s completely transparent, and you’ll know almost right away how it will turn out (although there are a couple of surprises you might not see coming), but when I finished reading it, I felt as if I’d been wrapped in down comforter and cuddled like a baby. The only way I can describe it is “happy-making.” The book is lifted above ordinariness by its warmth and humor; I cared about this family and wanted to see them succeed. Ruth’s battling parents get the most character development, and are delightful to watch as they are forced into close quarters for the first time since they split up over thirty years before. Ruth’s children are bare brush-strokes–the son is away at college for most of the novel, the daughter is a mere sketch of a sullen teenager, until she suddenly engages with the plot and blossoms into personhood.
What really appealed to me was the way that each character finds a place for him- or herself in the new family pattern. Their lives are thrown into disarray by just the sort of events that might strike your family or mine–illness, job loss–and their usual ways of relating to each other are disrupted. Rather than let it tear them apart, each member draws on his or her talents and resources to put the family back together in a new configuration. It was very reassuring to watch them succeed at a challenge many of us will face: maintaining strong family ties through shifting and adverse circumstances.
I reacted most strongly to Ruth, and it wasn’t until after I finished the book that I figured out why: the many scenes of Ruth in her kitchen in the wee hours of morning, looking through cookbooks and dreaming up new cake recipes called up images of my own grandma Ruth, whose fondest pastime was just that: reading cookbooks and experimenting with recipes. Our Ruth was the family cook from the age of 10, and would remain so all her life. She always had treats baked up for visitors, and in the event of unexpected company, could put a full dinner on the table in minutes, just from the leftovers in her fridge. She had the utterly charming habit of annotating her cookbooks and recipe cards. “Made 10/3/86. Very good. Will make again.” Or “Substituted a cup of whole wheat flour” or the like. Opinions, alterations, ideas for improvement; Grandma left notebooks full of recipes and full of her sweet spirit and love of cooking. She lives on with us in the most intimate way possible: in the food we eat. When we spent weekends at her house, our absolute favorite thing to have for breakfast were her oatmeal pancakes (“Oatie cakes!”), and now, many of us who loved her have taken that recipe and made it our own. And every time we make them for our families and friends, we think of our darling little Ruth, and remember all the times she made them for us, and feel the connection to her stretching through time.
Thus, I was delighted, upon finishing the book, to find an appendix with about a dozen of Ruth Hopson’s cake recipes. Reading Eat Cake will, at the very least, make you want to do just that. But I hope, and the author seems to hope as well, that you will also be inspired to try baking cakes, and possibly find some of the peace that Ruth found for herself and her family. As Ruth says, “One piece of cake never killed anyone.” Nor did one fluffy, sweet, optimistic, girly novel, so please, treat yourself to a slice of Cake.