The Secret to Hummingbird Cake - Celeste Fletcher McHale

In the South you always say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am.” You know everybody’s business. Football is a lifestyle not a pastime. Food—especially dessert— is almost a religious experience. And you protect your friends as fiercely as you protect your family— even if the threat is something you cannot see. In this spot-on Southern novel brimming with wit and authenticity, you’ll laugh alongside lifelong friends, navigate the sometimes rocky path of marriage, and roll through the outrageous curveballs that life sometimes throws . . . from devastating pain to absolute joy. And if you’re lucky, you just may discover the secret to hummingbird cake along the way.

~from back cover

 

 

 

First off, it's a little bookish peeve of mine: books that waste back cover space on rave review blurbs or a synopsis (such as the one on this book) that serve you a mountain of words but tell you absolutely nothing about the plot itself. I live in the South, I don't need generalizations about life here, what is THIS book ABOUT?! (That was my inner monologue on first perusal of this book... just thought I'd share :-P).

 

So let me help ya and tell you the ACTUAL, general plot here. Obviously it's Southern fiction, but specifically the reader is planted in the small town of Bon Dieu, Louisiana. Told in first person POV, our narrator is Carrigan Whitfield. When Carrigan was just 17 years old, she managed to catch the attention of local ladies' man / happy bachelor Jack Whitfield,10 years her senior and heir to his family's soybean fortune. Much to the surprise of everyone in town, Carrigan is the one Jack chooses for his wife. Since then, Carrigan has had the pleasure of living a pretty cushy life. Til now.


Present day, we're thirteen years into the Whitfield marriage. A lot of good years have passed between Carrigan and Jack, but here lately he's inexplicably started pulling away from her. Intimacy between them has all but stopped, as has much of their communication / conversations. Then the rumors start. All over town, Carrigan is hearing whispers that Jack is parking his boots at the bedsides of other ladies *wink, wink*. Rather than do the mature thing, push through the awkwardness that's been built up between them and just ASK Jack what really is going on, Carrigan goes off and has her own affair out of spite with a man she simply dubs "Cell Phone Romeo". Problem is, she doesn't even seem to like this guy very much at all. In fact, she's still very much in love with Jack, but for the longest time she sees no signs of him letting her in on his thoughts. Just when she's about to check out of her marriage completely though, Jack does have a turn around, suddenly bringing back waves of affection and soft words, only confusing her further. WHAT is going on?!

 

Luckily Carrigan has the support of her two best friends to carry her through this tough time. Directly across the street from her house is the home of one of her best friends, Laine. Not too far away is the other, Ella Rae. All of them now 30 years old, the three have been best buds since age 5. But this year will prove to be a test of strength & faith like the trio has never known before when tragedy strikes, forcing all of them to restructure their lives to accomodate the changing future. That's where the idea of the Hummingbird Cake comes in -- it's something that can bring people together and give them a smile, some small sense of comfort, when all else seems to be speeding out their control.

 

Okay, so why the low rating from me? Basically it came down to the writing. But there were what I'll call "savers" that kept me from hating it entirely. First though, what was problematic for me:

 

1) The whole cake idea. For a book that features a cake on the cover, even writes it into the title, I mean REALLY pushes the importance of this cake, once I read the actual story... the cake didn't seem all that prominent to me. It's mentioned maybe half a dozen times and always seems to be in passing -- "Hey Laine, you should make one of those cakes" "Yeah, maybe I will" "Hey guys I made one of those cakes." -- that kind of thing. For me, if a book really pushes the importance of food in its plot, I want it to be INFUSED with it --- books like JoAnne Harris' Chocolat, Erica Baumgartner's The School of Essential Ingredients,  Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate... that's what I'm looking for when it comes to foodie novels. 

 

2) I'll admit this one is entirely personal preference, but I just DID NOT LIKE Carrigan. It bugged me that she has this incredibly privileged life but she doesn't seem all that grateful for it and when it comes to friends, she seems to prefer "yes men" type friends rather than people who will give it to her straight. 

 

3) The character building, for Carrigan especially but also for some of the other characters, needs some work. In the case of Carrigan, her personality came off as confusing / wishy-washy. I audibly groaned at the conflicting character traits between pages 16 -17. Page 16, Carrigan states, "Not that I was a wild child, I was no child at all. But I was, well, busy." So I took that as meaning she didn't have much of a childhood, had to mature fast, etc. But then on the VERY NEXT PAGE, Page 17 Carrigan says, "I was a bit rebellious in my teenage years. Okay, I was a lot rebellious in my teenage years. I just liked to test my limits no matter what I was doing. With grades, ignoring curfews, ignoring expectations...Like the rules didn't apply to me..." Sooo you were crazy rebellious and the rules didn't apply to you but you weren't a wild child?? This is the kind of stuff that bugged me. 

 

4) There were virtually NO surprises in the plot for me. Seriously. Like, none. I did read to the end but basically closed the book feeling like the author was trying too hard to be the next Steel Magnolias

 

Okay, now those few "savers" I mentioned:

 

1) While much of the writing struck me as over-the-top, cartoonish representation of life in the South, there were a few good quips here and there that entertained me, such as the line, "Do you ever get altitude sickness from the moral high ground, Laine?" :-)

 

2) While I didn't much care for Carrigan, I did like Laine and Ella Rae. They were given fun personalities and I enjoyed their sense of humor! 

 

3) I liked the moments when Jack would show his sweet, soft side with Carrigan. 

 

4) The story between Mitch and Laine and the unfortunate timing with everything -- forget Carrigan and Jack, I found THIS story the most touching part of the entire book. 

 

5) My very favorite scene in the whole book though was the whole bit with the ladies talking over the coffin, just having a conversation with their heads on the lid, but the way they look everyone else in the chapel thinks they're beside themselves with grief. That whole convo between the ladies had me cracking up as I pictured it! 

 

So yeah, not the best Southern fiction I've read this year but as you can see, I found some saving moments in it for me. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.