You never know what’s going on in someone else’s life behind what they present to the outside world, and this story is a prime example of that. Each of these contestants isn’t just someone who wants to win a baking contest. As I read The Art of Baking Blind, I thought about the Food Network show, Chopped, and the reasons chefs give for wanting to win Chopped. Some of those reasons amaze me. Let’s just say there’s a lot more drama to baking in this novel than I’ve ever experienced while making my favorite cookies, and I was quite intrigued by it. And one of you is going to win a pay-it-forward copy in our Week #2 Pop-Up Giveaway!
When she published The Art of Baking in 1966, Kathleen Eaden became a household name in England for her baking prowess and perfection. Mrs. Eaden instantly became the baker every woman in the UK aspired to emulate. The Art of Baking wasn’t just a cookbook; it aspired to lift household baking into an art form. It not only contained recipes but lots of advice on what it meant to attain perfection as a baker. It was all about nurturing one’s family through home baked confections. What none of these women knew was that Mrs. Eaden’s life was far from the perfection she wrote about.
“This photo was taken in 1963, two years after Kathleen married George. As I’m sure you know, by the time they sold Eaden’s to the Marshall Group in 1967, George’s father’s grocers had expanded to 208 supermarkets. Kathleen was key to that exponential growth and success.” [Harriet, to the baking contest entrants.]
“The doyenne of baking with the enviable figure wouldn’t behave like this, would she? The description – concocted by Harper’s – usually provokes a sardonic smile. Now, though, she tries to accept the compliment at face value. Her hands flutter to her waist as she smoothes down her skirt and tries to right herself…
She leans back and straightens the paper. Now, if she can just ignore the sadness that corrodes her stomach, she might be able to finish this column. The script wobbles and blurs.
Oh for goodness sake, Kathleen. She uncaps her fountain pen in a flurry and, determined to ignore the tears that prick, yet again, despite her best efforts, Kathleen Eagen begins to write.”
In 2012, Eaden and Sons decides to conduct a contest to choose a new Mrs. Eaden to represent their highly successful up-market supermarket chain. They put out the call for “Britain’s Best Bakers” and the call is answered by scores of women, and some men. Chosen to compete in the contest are Vicky, Jennifer, Karen, Claire, and Mike. Vicky, Karen, and Jennifer are all accomplished home bakers. Claire and Mike, although also accomplished, appear to be the dark horses of the contest. Each of the contestants entered the Mrs. Eaden contest for different reasons but all have one thing in common, the need for validation not just as bakers but as human beings.
Vicky loves to bake and she loves it even more when she’s baking with her son, Alfie. Alfie loves to bake too and baking with him for her equates to being a good mother. The truth is that Alfie loves making his mum happy and she’s really happy when she’s baking. She had a career she loved but dropped it when her son was born because she was afraid she couldn’t do both. Vicky is terrified of not being a good mother and wife – of not measuring up.
“My name is Vicki Marchant, she imagines announcing to yet another interminable playgroup, and I am a fraudulent stay-at-home mom. A mum-of-one with none of the demands of numerous offspring or any of the pressure of having to work. I have a beautiful, healthy boy who loves me. And I do adore him. But I’m still not sure I’m very good at or – whisper it – always enjoy motherhood.”
Karen is a perfectionist. Everything she does has to be done perfectly. When she bakes, she’s always baking like it’s a contest to see how perfectly the end product will turn out. She also drives herself to maintain a perfect body and public persona, which might seem at complete odds with someone who bakes as much as she does. Just because she bakes it, that doesn’t mean she eats it. Karen also has a roving eye, and many secrets she lives in fear that the world will discover. Like many perfectionists, the real Karen is far from perfect – at least in her own eyes.
“’For God’s sake, Jake. If you’re going to devour it [carrot cake], do it nicely.’
She reaches for a porcelain side plate and a silver cake fork.
‘What’s that for?’
‘You know what that’s for. It’s a cake fork. Eat it properly.’
He looks at her with mock incredulity. ‘God, Ma. Anyone would forget you were born in Sarf-end.’ He elongates the work in a mock Essex accent. ‘Since when did you get so up yourself?’
His tone cuts her like a scalpel. Since my son started mocking me, she wants to reply. Since he and his sister entered a totally different social sphere…”
Jennifer, a.k.a. Jenny, is the quintessential earth mother. She draws great pleasure from baking and is almost addicted to it. She wants to nourish the world with her baking. Unfortunately, her husband is less than enthused with not just her baking but what it’s done to her figure. He’s on a health kick, jogging and watching every calorie. He’s also spending a lot of time working late at his dental practice and she’s afraid he may not love her anymore. That makes her sad and she turns even more to baking to ease the pain and sadness.
“Only Lizzie, her youngest, who has just started at Bristol, wonders if her mother is truly as happy as she claims.
‘Are you OK, Mum?’ she had asked her, tentatively, at Christmas. ‘Do you mind rattling around here, just cooking for Dad, now we’re all at uni?’
Jennifer had smiled. ‘Do you mean what do I do all day?’
The elder girls had been less concerned…”
Claire loves to cook so much that she attended culinary school but now toils as an Eaden’s employee. She didn’t enter the contest; her mother entered it in her name and surprised her. She’s an excellent baker but she’s also a single mom. Her responsibility to her daughter comes first and the job at Eaden’s was the only one she could find. She dreams of baking full-time but she can’t let go of the security her full-time job grants. Talk about a rock and a hard place. Although she’s terrified of the competition, it just might be her ticket out of her humdrum job.
Mike is a widower who discovered baking as a way to nurture his small children and ease the pain of losing his wife. Mike’s kids encouraged him to enter the contest because they believe he’s the best baker on the planet. Although the contest is for a new Mrs. Eaden, he decided to go for it anyway. What the hell – there’s no reason he couldn’t win and maybe Eaden’s needs a Mr. Eaden instead.
Each of these contestants will not just face trials as the contest tests their expertise in different baking areas, but they will also face personal crises that could sabotage their success. How will they bear up under the pressure of the contest and the pressure being brought at home to maintain the status quo to which their families have become accustomed? Homeostasis is a powerful force that always comes into play when people try to break out of the mold into which they’ve been put. How will it raise its ugly head for each of our contestants?
I loved reading about the contestants in this baking contest. Each one has a unique set of circumstances they’re trying valiantly to overcome and each does the best they can do to overcome those. We are taken deep into who these people are and know their hopes and dreams. I also love the way that the public layers are peeled back to show the real Kathleen Eaden. Celebrities of all kinds are human beings, with all the problems the rest of us have, and this story makes that very apparent.
I believe Sarah Vaughan has a winner in her debut novel, The Art of Baking Blind. I loved every minute of it. Writing a novel about six people who all share equal time and making that work in a seamless way is no mean feat, and the author pulls it off beautifully. I do have to provide a disclaimer that, although I’m not a reality show fan, I do love watching cooking reality shows. If you like those too then this is going to be your kind of novel. I hope you love it as much as I did!
Can’t wait to read it?
The Art of Baking Blind will be published on May 5, 2015; however, it’s available for pre-order from your favorite online bookseller now. Although you can order it in any format, if you order it as an e-book then it will download the instant it publishes. How’s that for instant gratification?
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