True Confections by Katharine Weber
I have a fondness for heroines named Alice. One of my middle names (the one that I admit to having most of the time) starts with Alix, a medieval French variant of Alice. It’s one of the few names I could actually see myself having other than Clare, and one of my favorite names. (Ironically, I’ve never actually read Alice in Wonderland). However, I had no idea that the narrator of True Confections was an Alice, although it certainly endeared her to me. Just the combination of a twisted family history with candy was enough to make me pick it up.
In True Confections, Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky would like clear a few things up. In an affidavit for a particularly nasty legal case regarding ownership of Zip’s Candies, Alice defends herself against her myriad accusers, explaining her dark teenage years, her connection with her husband’s father (the son of the founder of Zip’s Candies), and her recent actions, all of which only show, according to Alice, her devotion and love for Zip’s Candies. Book ended by two fires, Alice makes her case vividly.
After the last two books I read, I was delighted to discover a character like Alice. Pragmatic, passionate, and a little unreliable, she’s both a great deal of fun and easy to sympathize with. I was initially a bit wary of the fact that Alice was an unreliable narrator–I don’t like being lied to by a first person narrator, for whatever reason. But the ambivalence comes not from the facts themselves, but how Alice sees and rationalizes these facts. She’s also quite frank, in her own way–she readily admits to her need for approval and her ambivalence about her daughter’s piercings, although she thoroughly denies any legal wrongdoing on her part. This is Alice’s charm; she’s not fervently in denial or totally open, but her ambiguous nature is downright beguiling, in its own way. The rest of the characters are quite nice (her flighty, defensive sister-in-law, Irene, and her imperious mother-in-law, Frieda, particularly stand out), but Alice rightfully dominates the story.
The research Weber has done is fascinating. I can even forgive her an actually charming “author cameo” towards the end, when Alice briefly encounters a journalist doing some research at a candy convention. You’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s fictional, because the fictional history is so rich and some of the real candy history is so bizarre. Candy bars and candies from all over history are referenced, as well as the history of other candy companies, like Mars. Alice contrasts the company’s version of Eli Ziplinsky’s life with the truth, or as much as she can reconstruct, which is rife with crime and other things the company likes to pretend never happened. There’s also plenty of the nuts and bolts of actually making candy. The description of the Tigermelt (essentially a Baby Ruth with dark chocolate stripes) and the Little Sammies (fudge M&Ms) are mouthwatering, but I was especially taken with how Zip’s, as a regional company, has to do a lot by hand and on old equipment.
There’s not much of a structure to True Confections, I have to admit, but Alice is such a great character that you don’t care. She bounces back and forth in time, but it’s never hectic. Between the candy business and the sordid personal history of both Alice and the Ziplinskys, there’s also something entertaining going on. What keeps it together is Alice’s attempt to keep things in a chronological order, but this is a woman who considers her life as starting as the day she was hired at Zip’s Candies. But Alice only applies this to her narrative. Whenever she tells a story from another person’s personal narrative, she follows it through with no tangents beyond slight asides. I have to hand it to Weber; she made me love both an unreliable narrator and a fairly nonlinear story. But there is, I feel, a resolution to Alice’s feelings towards this whole business and especially towards her ex-husband that makes everything feel very neat and tidy.
One of my favorite things about True Confections is the theme of the importance of using the right word and how subtly it’s woven into the novel. Instilled in Alice by a beloved English teacher who abandoned her, she analyzes the reason she’s the only one who calls her ex-husband Howard instead of his silly nickname, Howdy. But, again, Alice is not totally devoted to it, despite her correction of other people’s English; she gives up on her daughter’s attempts to explain polyamory to her and mocks Irene for her pretentious lifestyle. (Interestingly, this is the first novel I’ve read that actually mentions or even features a poly character.)
But I’ve barely scratched the surface. True Confections also contains a meditation on racism in candy, a sordid family history, and Alice’s hatred for Roald Dahl. I loved all of it, even though I do love Roald Dahl myself. I can’t wait to get my hands on anything else Weber has written and see if they hold up to this wonderful novel.
Bottom line: The fabulous and secret history of a candy company and the family tied to it, as told by one of my favorite fictional characters this year, Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky–a pragmatic, passionate, and mildly unreliable woman. Weber manages to make an unreliable narrator and a nonlinear story into something absolutely amazing. Read this book.
I rented this book from the public library.