Beth Kendrick's THE BAKE-OFF is a szarlotka of a book--sweet and potentially indigestible. Szarlotska, the Polish version of the French pastry Charlotte de Pomme, plays an important part in Kendrick's story. It is the recipe Grammy Syl coerces her estranged grand-daughters, Amy and Linnie to enter into a into a baking competition the prize for which a cool hundred thousand dollars. Discerning readers will guess that Grammy's objective is not money. Rather, it is the reconciliation of these two sisters who are “as different as oil and water.” Burdened with an IQ of a hundred and eighty, gorgeous Linnie is self-righteous, priggish and unsociable. She lives according to rigid set of rules and she shares none of her sibling's appetites. Married to a nondescript dentist husband with whom she produced a set of twins, Amy is a dental hygienist whose brilliant social skills seem to compensate for her average intelligence. Also important to plot advancement are a pair of villainous bake-off contestants, and a (ho-hum) dark handsome and wealthy hotelier. The background is a posh hotel in New York City where the bake-off takes place. Given a crash course in the art of making szarlotka, the twenty-something sisters, who had no prior training as bakers, end up as contest finalists. They arrive at the Big Apple to discover, in double-quick time, Important Truths, learn Great Life Lessons, bond like crazy, watch a porno flick, and find love-preceded-by-sex, though not necessarily in that order.
What is not to like about such a book? Surely there is a place for mindless escapism in literature. Not every novel written by Colette and Joyce Carol Oates qualifies as deathless prose. Jane Austen is not known for Sturm und Drang. The trouble is that the reader is entitled to have at least as much fun with a book as the person who wrote it. This reader certainly did not. Billed as “hilarious”, THE BAKE OFF comes off as studied and forced. Neither its characters nor situations have nuances. They seem to have been designed with demographics in mind. Does this make it a horrible book? Not really.. Not really. It is not significantly different from the novels that kept Georges Sand solvent and that made her avatars, Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele very rich indeed. In an era when vampire fiction reigns supreme, there is no reason why THE BAKE-OFF should not become a bestseller. If it does, Julia Roberts will probably buy the film rights, vox populi being what is. The point is, if her public craves a mix of cliches and froth, why should Kendrick deprive it of its just desserts? In Amy's immortal words,
" It's just fucking pie."