Sweet nothings

Written as an affidavit, Katharine Weber’s novel about a family-owned confectionery business could use a sprinkling of dialogue.

June 25, 2010 18:28
3 minute read.
Lacking taste? A first-person narrative always cal

chocolate 311. (photo credit: Illustrative photo: Chicago Tribune/MCT)

A novel about a family-owned candy business should be delicious fun, and Katharine Weber’s True Confections does have its enjoyable moments. But mostly, this story of Alice Tatnall, a young woman who finds herself when she starts working at Ziplinsky’s Candies in New Haven, gets bogged down in the details. It’s narrated by Alice, and Weber strives so assiduously to give just her heroine’s perspective that there is no dialogue at all. Every word is filtered through Alice and, as fascinated as Alice is by the candy business, her favorite subject is Alice. So we get page after page on Alice’s thoughts about candy, her in-laws, business, advertising and other topics.

If Alice is interested in a subject, she presents it in exhaustive detail, and it makes sense that the entire book is supposedly a court deposition. There’s a reason that depositions are not sold in bookstores: The amount of detail needed to prove a case won’t generally make a compelling read. SDT is editorial shorthand for the phrase, show don’t tell. But in True Confections, Weber only tells and buries the most interesting aspects of her story in the process.

The book has a promising opening, as Alice tells about the events that caused her to wander into the Ziplinsky factory just after she finished high school. That summer, she inadvertently caused a fire that burned down a friend’s house at a party. Taking a plea bargain on her lawyer’s advice, her admission to college is rescinded. Her parents, who have been ruined financially due to the restitution that is part of her bargain, allow her to live at home but abandon her emotionally. Her former friends shun her.

She is extremely vulnerable the day she happens to wander into Ziplinsky’s Candies and is offered a factory job there. She immediately earns the approval and friendship of Sam, the family patriarch, and begins a romance with Sam’s son, Howard. The chapters where she describes her initial fascination with the candy business are the most engrossing, but eventually the minutiae of the firm’s operation become tedious reading.

It began to remind me of the descriptions of the glove factory in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Show me someone who doesn’t admit to at least being tempted to skim those long descriptions of the leather treatment process in that novel, and I’ll show you a liar.

True Confections suffers from the same glut of detail. There are long, long musings on the pros and cons of white chocolate, the deficiencies of so-called gourmet chocolate, Alice’s attempts to introduce new packaging to some of the brands, etc. I would think even the most avid chocolate or candy aficionados would find some of this wearying in the end, since it all reads like a rant. It would be far more lively to chat with other chocolate enthusiasts on the Net.

Another aspect of the novel that is intermittently successful is its portrait of an immigrant Jewish family. Alice falls in love with the family as much or more than she does with her husband, attracted by the Ziplinskys’ emotionalism and their connection to their roots. We’ve read about a lot of Jewish men in love with blonde goddesses, but we haven’t seen the other side of this story often, and Weber presents it well here.

She also attempts to make the family’s history a microcosm of the Jewish experience in the 20th century, even giving them a longtime connection to Madagascar, where a great uncle from Budapest settles, one step ahead of the Nazis, hoping to claim a privileged position as the first Jewish resident there, before the Germans set up their proposed Jewish homeland. While this exotic section is well done, it would have been more vivid if we had been able to get into the heads of the characters (dialogue wouldn’t hurt here, either).

As I read, I kept thinking, “Now she’ll drop all these explanations about the cooling process for the chocolates and start getting into the real story,” but it doesn’t happen. There is a final revelation about Alice that is meant to be shocking, but it would be a very inattentive reader who doesn’t guess it long before. Weber is an accomplished writer and God knows, she’s done her research, but let’s hope that in her next book, she remembers the show-don’t-tell maxim.

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