Zell (short for Rose-Ellen) is a thirty-something widow who has just been going through the motions in the year since her photojournalist husband, Nick, died unexpectedly in New Orleans while covering a story about Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. One day, Zell gets her nine-year-old neighbor’s Polly Pinch cooking magazine in the mail and decides to enter Polly Pinch’s baking contest because the grand prize of $20,000 is the amount of money Nick wanted to raise to donate to further Katrina relief efforts. Zell finds herself beginning a new friendship with the neighbor girl, Ingrid, as the two work together to come up with the perfect recipe to submit to the contest. Ingrid is obsessed with Polly Pinch because she believes Polly is the mother who abandoned her as a baby. Together Zell and Ingrid begin a journey which leads to adventure and healing.
I wasn’t quite sure how I would feel about a book with a young widow as a main character (I have a good friend who is a young widow), but I was willing to give it a shot because it was out of the ordinary. I give tons and tons of credit to Alicia Bessette for creating a very realistic widow character. Zell is not over her husband’s death, she has trouble sleeping, barely leaves the house (she works from home), and still writes emails to her husband. She is hanging on by a thread when she meets Ingrid. And while working with Ingrid on the Polly Pinch contest gives Zell a project and some company, it doesn’t cure her grief. Neither does her budding relationship with Ingrid’s dad, Garrett. The honest portrayal of grief was a highlight of this book.
Another highlight of this book was its setting. Zell lives in central Massachusetts, so there is a lot of New England charm in this book. Also, most of the book is set during winter, so there are lots of winter activities, too. The characters snowshoe, ski, get caught in a blizzard, go sledding, and talk about having to shovel the driveway. You can tell by reading that Bessette LOVES winter. I can’t say I agree with her, especially about the romanticism of getting caught in a blizzard,* but this book had a great atmosphere to it. The setting was a character, sort of thing.
This is Bessette’s debut and in some ways that shows. There were three seriously questionable editing decisions.
1. There are alternating viewpoints in this book and while I normally like that, I would have cut it from this book happily. Zell is the main narrator and I was always eager to read her voice. Nick and Zell’s friend, EJ also gets to narrate some. His story was completely unnecessary to include and I hated reading it. It seemed contrived to insert a romantic story line and to add some tension to the story of Nick’s death. Luckily EJ doesn’t talk too much, so it doesn’t ruin the book, but it definitely prevents the book from being its best.
2. They try to extract some suspense or tension by not telling you how Nick dies until the very end. You know he dies somehow in New Orleans, but that’s it. Again, this seemed contrived and really unnecessary.
3. Finally, there is a very convoluted part towards the end where Zell and Ingrid meet Polly Pinch and the issue of Ingrid’s mother’s identity is brought up. It got a little confused and rushed and oddly a bit redundant. I would have preferred a less grand, less tidy ending.
All that said, though, there is definite potential here… I loved Zell and her dog** and her town. I will definitely keep my eyes out for any future work by Alicia Bessette!
I would recommend this to fans of chick lit and to people who like a good story about healing and friendship. It’s not perfect, but it was definitely a touching, entertaining read!
*My husband, my mother-in-law, brother-in-law, brother-in-law’s girlfriend, two dogs, and I got stranded by the blizzard that hit Oklahoma on Christmas Eve of 2009. It was terrifying, not romantic.
**Zell has a rescue greyhound named Captain Ahab. He might be the best non-talking dog character ever.