Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The City Baker's Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller

Louise Miller is remarkably accomplished in this debut novel about a family-less pastry chef escaping an affair with her boss in Boston, a married man, and landing at the Sugar Maple Inn in Guthrie, Vermont. All of our senses are engaged just by contemplating the premise: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Miller adds the umami ingredient, voice. Her main character, Livvy, has the wit to speak her mind and the cooking talent to go with it. What she doesn’t have before she moves to Vermont are the comforts of a home where people will love her for just who she is.

Romances are written to a formula, and some do it better than others. Miller manages to include every element of a rockin’ romance, including a prudently unconsummated sex scene with said boss late in the proceedings that proves her bonafides when it comes to one of the more difficult things to write well: sex. That this is a debut is reason for romance-lovers to celebrate. The story was inventive enough to encourage us to believe that there is more where that came from.

We are treated to the Coventry County Fair prize-winning apple pie recipe at the end of the book, though anyone who has baked before knows there is always a magic ingredient in successful baking: skill or luck. What we didn’t get, alas, were recipes for the three-tier wedding cake for Margaret’s arch-rival’s granddaughter, Emily White, which included coconut with passion-fruit curd, devil’s food with rum ganache, and lemon with fresh raspberries and white chocolate cream, all covered with fondant. But you can search those out and practice a little until her next novel yields more suggestions.

Miller herself is a pastry chef in Boston, though she gives Livvy “a splashier career” than her own. In an interview conducted by her publishers, Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, Miller tells us
"Actually, writing a pastry chef character gave me a surprise benefit: it made me more mindful in the kitchen. I found myself paying closer attention to everything I was making—especially to the tasks I can perform without thinking, like making chocolate mousse or crème brulee—wanting to capture all the details."
Truthfully, it would not have bothered me a bit to have a few more clues to successful baking left in. Who isn’t completely obsessed with TV’s The British Baking Show?
"I find that writing about food is a million times more difficult than actually making food. Baking requires precision, and I had to fight the urge to include every step of the process when writing about making dessert. Many of the baking scenes had to be edited several times because they sounded too instructional."
I don’t bake often, but when I do, I want to make sure it turns out. A few more hints to winning techniques wrapped in a romance fondant wouldn’t go astray in this reader’s opinion. Besides, if we learn a few things along the way we may not feel so guilty about taking a day or two to read about someone else pursuing their dreams.

When asked why she chose this particular story line, Miller admits that she has always been a city kid:
"I think the allure comes from the fantasy that life will be vastly different—a slower pace, a life more connected to the land and to the seasons, with space to grow a big garden, to own a little piece of land and to know it well. Life in the city requires constant negotiation—with your neighbors, with the people on the subway, in line at the coffee shop, in traffic—part of the attraction is being free from some of those pressures."
Fantasy is a big part of successful romance. The most reassuring thing about this novel was that Livvy and her fellow characters all progress to some kind of personal dream fulfillment in the course of the story. Livvy creates her own family with strong bonds, and her friends manage to wrestle her to the ground long enough for roots to form. She is not finished growing, but we leave knowing she has a solid foundation for a good life and successful career. And that is how we feel about Louise Miller, too.

This is a fine book to escape the summer heat, so rustle up a copy when it comes out August 9, 2016 and settle in for a journey that begins with flambé and ends with homemade apple pie.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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