Julie & Romeo

Step-Ball-Change

 
Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray
(Shaye Areheart/Random House, $19.95, G) ISBN 0-609-61004-X
***
Jeanne Rayís third novel doesnít quite live up to the high standards of its predecessors, Julie and Romeo and Step-Ball-Change but itís still an upbeat, thoughtful read. God bless Ms. Ray for writing her own brand of Womenís Fiction that casts vibrant, passionate 50-plus-year-old women as the heroines. For those of us growing weary of Chick Lit, her ďCrone LitĒ is a welcome respite.

Whenever life becomes too stressful, Ruth imagines herself inside a warm, freshly baked cake. Cakes are her comfort and her talent, from traditional carrot cake to her unique sweet potato bundt cake with rum-plumped raisins. But today the 51-year-old homemakerís regular stress-relief mechanism isnít enough. Her husband Sam has just been laid off from his hospital administrator position with no immediate job prospects in sight. Ruthís father, an itinerant nightclub pianist, has broken both wrists and has no choice but to move into Ruthís house, which is already occupied by her mother and her testy 16-year old daughter.

Tempers flare between Ruthís divorced parents. Their diverse approaches to life can be illustrated by the fact that, while both are piano players, Ruthís mother never plays without sheet music and her father utterly disdains it. Samís despondent loafing gives way to a mid-life crisis as he considers chucking hospital administration altogether and rehabbing sailboats instead. Ruth starts to realize that itís up to her to save the family from financial and emotional disaster. And the answer may be a piece of cake.

Ray manages to pack quite a lot of emotion and humor into 225 pages, not the least of which is a sincere plea for the renewed appreciation of cake, which we too often decline out of guilt. Cake, Ruth reminds us, is ďwhatís served on the happiest days of your life,Ē and deserves to be savored. Her reminiscences of the first time she baked cake with her mother, including her childish fascination with the littlest measuring spoons, rings true for any of us who ever bonded with their own mothers in the kitchen. Cake also turns into a metaphor for finding your lifeís passion. Itís easy to empathize with Sam, who has been the familyís sole breadwinner for 20-plus years without having the freedom to determine what he really wants to do. Ruth realizes that if sheís to keep her 25-year marriage thriving, she has to let Sam explore his own personal ďcake.Ē

Ray is also to be commended for reminding us that family dynamics never stop evolving. Having three generations of family living together in close quarters and facing a crisis forces each family member to develop new roles that highlight their particular skills and gifts. And of course there are those wonderfully well-rounded mature characters. Not only does Ray depict individuals in their 50s who still have sex lives, she even dares to hint that sensuality can survive into the 70s as well.

Eat Cake is charming, but itís an angel food cake type of book, not quite as rich or fulfilling as Step-Ball-Change, and it could have benefited from a few more secondary characters from outside the family. Iím also scratching my head in puzzlement at Rayís apparent fondness for including one wise black character in each of her novels. Is this progress or patronization? Iím not sure.

If youíre balking at the idea of spending twenty bucks for this slim novel, consider the fact that the recipes for all of the cakes mentioned in the story are included in its appendix. A perfect evening might just consist of curling up in a comfy chair with a piece of Ruthís Upside-Down Pear Gingerbread Cake and this book.

--Susan Scribner


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