How to Bake a Perfect Life
by Barbara O’Neal
(Bantam, $15, PG) ISBN 978-0-553-38677-6
Barbara O’Neal, aka Barbara Samuel, can always be counted on for warm, emotionally satisfying women’s fiction. Although her latest novel doesn’t deviate from her successful formula – middle-aged heroine with baggage, interesting secondary characters, weathered but handsome hero, with a prickly teenager frequently thrown into the mix – How to Bake a Perfect Life is a great comfort read for a cold night.

Ramona Gallagher’s life is far from perfect, but at the age of 40 she’s balancing it the best she can. The one-time teenaged mom runs a Colorado Springs bakery that barely breaks even and enjoys a close relationship with her pregnant daughter Sofia, whose husband Oscar is stationed in Afghanistan. But things spiral out of control when Oscar is badly injured, the bakery is flooded by a broken water pipe, and Oscar’s ex-wife is arrested for meth possession, leaving Sofia’s 13 year old stepdaughter without a home.

With a calmness she really doesn’t feel, Ramona sends Sofia to Germany to be with Oscar, calls her mentor and former lover for help with the water pipe, and welcomes Katie, who arrives along with a lively mutt and a major chip on her shoulder. Ramona hopes to engage Katie with the joys and comfort of baking bread, but surprisingly Katie is more drawn to Ramona’s often cold and critical mother, Lily, and her love of gardening. Ramona has her issues with Lily, but she needs all the help she can get, as the bakery continues to teeter on the verge of insolvency and Sofia reaches out long-distance for support. There’s no time or room in Ramona’s life for romance, even when it comes in the form of a blast from her past, who has been similarly wounded but not broken by life. Or is there?

Between the bakery, Sofia, Katie, Ramona’s estranged family, and romance, there’s a lot going on in this novel, which could have benefited from another hundred pages or so to fully explore all of the subplots. The story is primarily told through Ramona’s first person narrative, but it is supplemented with chapters from Katie’s point of view and entries from Sofia’s journal. Katie’s personality comes alive in her brief pages, but Sofia never feels like more than a generic soldier’s wife. It would have been helpful if, along with the chapters that flash back to Ramona’s teen pregnancy, we had also learned more about her life as a young mother and how her relationship with Sofia miraculously avoided any major traumas.

But the fact that I wanted the book to be longer primarily speaks to the fact that I enjoyed How to Bake a Perfect Life. Samuel’s strong sense of place, the small touches of magical realism she adds, and the obvious but not heavy-handed analogies between bread starter (or “mother dough”) and motherhood, all combine to create an intelligent, highly readable novel. The romance is particularly yummy, and although both Ramona and Jonah (yes, they know their names rhyme) are wary, they don’t have any silly Big Misunderstandings or dramatic gestures that separate them once they are reunited.

Barbara O’Neal, Barbara Samuel, Ruth Wind – a novel by any of this author’s names is a reason to cheer. Don’t let this book’s mid-December release date cause it to become overlooked amidst the holiday chaos.

--Susan Scribner

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