In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that given a choice between a piece of chocolate and a plate of Brussels sprouts, I’ll take the sprouts every time. I mention this only to prove that you do not have to love chocolate to enjoy True Confections by Katherine Weber (Shaye Areheart Books, $22.00). However, if you are a chocoholic, a term abhorred by Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, the heroine of this novel, then Weber’s descriptions — the taste, the scent, the silkiness on the tongue — are sure to send you looking for a chocolate fix. Warning: this book could be detrimental to your waistline.
Alice, the child of chilly WASPs whose only devotion to family is determining how directly they are descended from Benedict Arnold’s wife, is destined for Middlebury College, until a self-inflicted disaster that involves a not-quite accidental house burning derails her academic career. On a whim she answers an ad for a job at Zip’s candy factory. Sooner than chocolate can melt in your mouth, she’s married to the son and heir, running the company, and recording the history of this sprawling Jewish family, which includes nineteen-twenties New York hit men, stolen candy recipes, and Adolf Eichmann’s plan to resettle all of Europe’s Jews in Madagascar.
But if the son Howdy, as Howard Ziplinsky is called, falls for Alice (or does he?), and the patriarch embraces her as a daughter, not all of the clan are so eager to welcome her into their midst. The more she does for the family business, the more faults Howdy’s mother and sister find. But a lonely and undaunted Alice is determined to worm her way into the bosom of the Ziplinskys and their candy company. If the portrait of a large idiosyncratic squabbling Jewish family is somewhat stereotypical, her own WASP parents come off as even more typecast.
To say that Alice is not exactly a reliable narrator is putting it mildly, but she is a gimlet-eyed and witty observer. About her rebarbative sister-in-law, she writes, “shame on you…sitting there smugly in your $7 million log cabin…with your solar energy and your composting toilet, spouting your virtuous fair trade, sustainable, organic, free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free, handwoven, sanctimonious crap.”
True Confections occasionally bogs down in the details of making and marketing candy, and some of the subplots, like the antics of a supposed runaway slave from the cacao plantations of Cote d’Ivoire, feel like padding, but Alice’s monologue — the book is in the form of an affidavit — never flags. And the less we trust Alice’s account, the more we fall under her sway. She is, in fact, funniest about her own foibles, such as notarizing her forgeries of her father-in-law’s signature, and putting her former husband’s Patek Philippe watch in the Cuisinart.
Alice is not always loveable, but she is sure to make you laugh, and by the end of the novel you can’t help cheering for this smart and feisty, if devious, woman who went after what she wanted, and got it.
Ellen Feldman, a Guggenheim Fellow, is the author of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank and Scottsboro, which was shortlisted for England’s Orange Prize.