I knew I was going to like this book as soon as I saw the epigraph.
The Art of Baking Blind is the story of the search for the new Kathleen Eaden, the woman who wrote seminal cookbook The Art of Baking, in the 1960s. But it’s also so much more than that.
The novel tells the stories of five women Kathleen Eaden and four of the five competitors – Jenny, Karen, Vicki and Claire. (The fifth competitor is a man, Mike, who does have a part to play but isn’t focused on in the same way the women are.)
Jenny has been married to Nigel for 25 years. They have three daughters, now all grown-up and living away from home – one as far away as Australia, another at university in France and the third at university in Bristol. Her ‘burgeoning love of baking’ has not only ‘coincided with her expansion into middle age’ but also her husband’s new found love of running, ‘the obsessive, relentless running of a fifty-two-year-old man who has felt mortality snapping at his heels and is desperate to outrun it’. Rather than support her, Nigel is overly critical:
‘You need to get a grip. This cookery competition is sheer indulgence. No one needs to gorge themselves on pies, cream cakes and biscuits. Least of all you.’
Karen is an ice-cold, solidly middle-class perfectionist. We meet her ‘perched at the island in the centre of her chaste kitchen, the line between her eyebrows deepening as she examines its marble surface with disdain’. She has a seventeen-year-old son whose mission in life seems to be to wind her up mercilessly and a husband, Oliver, who spends more time at their London flat than he does at home. She also has issues with food:
A carrot cake sits on the opposite counter, its frosting sparkling. Fat sultanas wink at her from the orange crumb: she breathes in the sugar, the spice, the egg. It teases her, like a cocksure teenager leaning against a street corner. ‘Come on. You know you want me. Just a little nibble? A taste of my icing? Tell me, darling, where’s the harm in that?’
But Karen resists…Control and self-discipline are the key to everything. She has long known that the brief elation of surrender just cannot compare with the thrill of denial.
Vicki was an outstanding primary school teacher until she gave up work to have her child, Alfie, now three. Commercial lawyer husband, Greg, is barely at home and her mother, Frances, is over-critical and unwilling to help care for her grandson. Vicki’s starting to think she’s just not cut out for motherhood:
A friend once told her the best way to deal with car seat resistance was to punch your child in the stomach. At the time she assumed it was a joke, the kind of black-humour the more witty of her mummy friends trade in; the sort of comment you see on Mumsnet where bored mothers vie to churn out the best one-liners. Now she is not so sure.
Twenty-seven-year old Claire is a single mother working at Eason’s (the supermarket chain Kathleen’s husband George created) as a checkout assistant, while raising her now ten-year-old daughter, Chloe. She’s entered for the competition by her parents.
‘Let’s face it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ Bill had said, his face creasing with laughter.
I can lose my job. I can lose my income. I can get even poorer.’ She had been engulfed by rising panic.
‘Love.’ Her mum had smiled, and she shook her head as she marvelled at how sensible her youngest child was; how sensible she had had to become.
But Claire’s also going to have to deal with the reappearance of Chloe’s dad, Jay.
The competition’s structured in a similar fashion to The Great British Bake-Off, covering cakes, biscuits, bread, pies and pastries, puddings, and afternoon tea, although there are no knock-out stages. Instead, the winner and runner-up in each round make a YouTube video of their creation. Each chapter begins with a short, relevant paragraph from Kathleen Eason’s cookery book and the character’s stories are interwoven with the competition’s stages. Kathleen also gets her own chapters that run between the stories of the other women.
The book is about women, their desires – work, family, sexual – and roles – mother, wife, teacher – and how they reconcile the two. Each contestant has a different reason for entering the competition but, for all of them, it is an opportunity to rid themselves of an negative element in their lives.
All the characters are interesting but personally I enjoyed Kathleen and Karen’s stories the most. Kathleen is a woman ahead of a time with a heart-breaking story to tell; indeed, her story (and the descriptions of food from her cookbook) is so vivid, I had to check that she wasn’t a real person. Karen is utterly unlikeable – and if you’re a regular reader you’ll know how much I love an unlikeable character – but her story is so brutal, it’s easy to see why she maintains such a veneer of class and perfection.
The Art of Baking Blind is one to add to your holiday reading pile and indulge yourself in. It’s a challenge to manage a story with five protagonists, particularly in a debut, but Sarah Vaughan manages it with aplomb.
Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the review copy.