My novel about why we bake is published by St Martin's Press today - and it's a surreal but wonderful feeling: knowing that my book may be being picked up in bookshops so far away.
St Martin's have also asked me to come up with some reading group questions and I found them a joy to write. Preoccupied with the redraft of my second novel, it was a delight to turn back to my first one and to lavish a little attention on it. I hope they prove useful. (And if any US readers have recipes for typically American bakes - pecan pie, pumpkin pie, whoopie pies perhaps - I'd love to hear about them.)
Reading group questions: (Note: spoilers.)
1. Blind baking is a technique for ensuring a perfect pastry case yet, as Jenny muses, "so much can go wrong." The impossibility of perfection is a major theme in this novel. Who, in your opinion, is the character that personifies this trait most clearly? And what lies behind the "be perfect" compulsion exhibited by many women.
2. The germ of this novel came when I started baking with my small children. At the same time, I noted the competitiveness of mothers running school cake sales. Is our interest in baking an expression of a hankering for a simpler, gentler - and perhaps fictitious - time? Or is it about a need for validation particularly among highly-educated, stay-at-home mothers?
3. At the heart of the book is the idea of family. For most of the women, baking or cooking represents the idea of "home" or an idealised home. Why do we invest food with such significance? And what do you think of the characters in the novel who fail to perceive food in this way?
4. Food can also be about control, as exemplified by Karen. What do you think of the portrayal of disordered eating in the novel? Is the portrayal sympathetic - do we understand Karen's behaviour?
5. "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." The Yeats' epigraph is recalled by Jenny as her sponge curdles and she thinks of her disintegrating marriage. Where else is baking used figuratively to represent personality traits or to mirror a character's experience?
6. Many of the women in the novel are struggling with a change in their lives and it's this dissatisfaction that leads them to apply for the competition. Jenny has lost her old role of wife and full-time mother; Karen is struggling with the idea that her body is ageing Vicki is struggling to adapt to being a stay-at-home mum who may only have one child. Only Claire - whose mother applies on her behalf - is not at such a crossroads. Does this make her a less dynamic; or less sympathetic, character? If not, why?
7. Are there any characters you found unlikeable? If so, why?
8. Did you expect Kathleen's story to end as it did? Did you find that satisfying?
9. In my own family, we have passed down favourite recipes. What are yours and is there an equivalent of an Art of Baking in your life: the culinary Bible that has shaped the way you bake?