Laura Castoro’s ICING ON THE CAKE hit the pink cover mother lode. Pink cake? Check. Pink skirt? Check. Pink window dressing? Check. Decorative pink flourishes? Check. It’s a shame that pink isn’t the new black instead of a shortcut used to identify stories about career girls, their shoes, their insecurities, and their boyfriends, because this work of women’s fiction shouldn’t be judged by its cover. Neither should it be missed by any reader who enjoys characters able to face one crisis after another while retaining both their sanity and their sense of humor.
Liz Talbot, 47, mother of twin girls Sarah and Riley, 23, daughter to Sally, ageless, and ex of Ted, is a baker struggling to recover from the no-carb craze. The No-Bagels Emporium is not just any bakery, but an Upper Montclair, New Jersey institution, one Liz took over from the grandparents who raised her while Sally did her thing as a Radio City Rockette. Specializing in artisan bread – sourdough, baguettes, ciabatta, pagnotta, etc. – Liz, a true foodie, also provides gourmet items such as bourbon pecan cinnamon rolls.
Along with her formally trained baker and pastry chef Shemar, and with the help of her friend Celia and high school work-study students DeVon and Desharee, Liz is doing all she can to keep afloat, including preparing for the upcoming Fine Arts and Crafts Show where she will have the opportunity to display her wares to investors.
When Ted, the ex, suddenly dies, having failed to update his will (in which Liz is specifically named) and leaving her millions in assets tied to Talbot Advertising, Liz sees a light at the end of her tunnel of financial problems . . . a light that is summarily extinguished when she discovers there is more to her inheritance than seven figures.
She also inherits a partnership with Ted’s widow – Brandi, the “husband-snatching chickie-babe” responsible for the break-up of Liz and Ted’s marriage. Brandi, who dots the “i” in her name with a heart. Who owns a string of tanning salons. Who within weeks is on Liz’s bakery’s doorstep to point out that Talbot Advertising’s balance sheet has taken a nosedive since Ted’s death. Just what Liz needs. A second struggling business. No, what she needs is a break.
She gets one when attending a wedding with Celia. While in the hotel bar, Liz strikes up a flirtation with a stranger, and ends up in his room for a delicious encounter that lasts until the wee hours – and has her panicking the next morning over what she’s done almost as much as over being late to the crafts fair. It’s at the crafts fair where she discovers the identity of her mystery man. He’s Marcus James, a food consultant for Nabisco who might very well be the answer to her bakery’s future – or might very well be that and more if their anonymous affair didn’t make for a huge conflict of interest.
Liz finds, however, that no matter her bakery and sex life issues, she can’t turn her back on Talbot’s – not when so much of her past, and now her future, is tied up in the business. Stepping in to save the company will be saving herself, and the bonus she’ll negotiate for her return will help ease her debts. When she and Marcus reconnect, he wonders why she isn’t using her advertising background to market her bakery if that’s where her heart truly belongs. He never caters to her or soft-steps to spare her feelings. It’s a wake-up call Liz sorely needs, one she appreciates honestly without throwing his observation back in his face as a lesser heroine might do to create faux conflict.
In short, these are mature people, likable people, and characters worth reading about – ones who can bitch and moan in one breath, and get over it in the next. No mountains out of molehills. No misunderstandings in lieu of conflict. In fact, Liz’s practicality and determination to face her problems proactively is what makes her such an appealing protagonist, and what makes the story a winner. When she approaches not only her daughters but her mother as well, insisting they all take stock of their adult lives, the reader sees the family support system at work. The dynamic is realistic, avoiding the often clichéd dysfunctional fare. Neither is theirs a fairytale of perfection resolved with a slick deus ex machina.
If there is any part of the book deserving of the chick lit label, it’s Castoro’s abundant references to name brands, labels and designers. Never bemoaning the fact that she is now sporting a wardrobe from The Gap instead of Albert Nippon, however, Liz’s first person voice is engaging, self-deprecating, and relevant. Her thoughts pick up where her dialogue leaves off, and often with such witty irreverence the passages demand being read again. Even so, the pacing, the emotional resonance, and Castoro’s deft juggling of multiple plot lines makes the story zing.
The book is not a romance by genre standards. The focus is on Liz, her family, her businesses, and her life as she deals with Sarah’s fear of the bar exam, Riley’s appearance in a off Broadway play featuring “full-noodle frontery”, Sally’s dramatic machinations, and her growing attachment to Marcus. In the end, however, ICING ON THE CAKE serves up the perfect recipe for a compelling, yummy, and yes, one-sitting read.
You can visit Laura here and purchase this book here and here.