Book Review: “Mrs. Quinn’s Rise to Fame, by Olivia Ford

MRS. Quinn’s rise to fame, by Olivia Ford

From the looks of it, 77-year-old Jennifer Quinn leads a life that belongs in “Masterpiece Theater.” She lives in bucolic Kittlesham, an English town that makes you feel like you’ve “entered a secret garden or the back of a wardrobe”, with “delightfully uneven houses and medieval pubs”.

Every morning, Bernard, Jennifer’s husband of almost 60 years, wakes her up with a cup of tea and the newspaper folded to her liking. Their house is permeated with the smells of tea loaves, biscuits and tarts – because baking is Jennifer Quinn’s “super power”, as Bernard tells anyone who will listen. Not a day goes by that she doesn’t measure flour and sugar on her old-fashioned kitchen scale and whip up something sweet in their beloved kitchen. If you were in charge of closed captioning for Olivia Ford’s “Masterpiece” production, you would write “(upbeat string music)” on every other frame to evoke a quiet, charming life together.

The problem is that Jennifer wants something more. She and Bernard never had children, unless you count their adorable grandniece Poppy. She never had a career either, and watching Bernard fall asleep in front of the TV – and thinking about their marriage entering its final chapter – makes Jennifer want something of her own.

Spontaneously, secretly, she applies to take part in “Britain Bakes”, the popular show that Bernard pretends not to watch while reading. “I have spent my life being guided less by big ambitions than by small victories,” she wrote in her application. “The perfect swirl in a Swiss roll, the smooth pink dome of an expertly made summer pudding, cut into a baked Alaska only to find that the ice cream stayed cold.”

Our heroine also longs for closure on a secret she’s kept for most of her life – and that’s where those vivid strings can start to sound menacing in the minor key. Jennifer manages to land a spot on the show (while keeping her affair a secret) and suddenly her baking becomes not only a vehicle for self-realization, but a source of painful memories. Food writer Laurie Colwin once wrote, “No one who cooks cooks alone,” and that holds true for Quinn. Every country loaf and chocolate log reminds her of someone she loves or someone she’s lost – and not necessarily in a good way. Ford, who made her television debut, alternates between a young, motherless Jennifer trying to make a life for herself and an older Jennifer struggling with dark regrets. In the middle of every story, connecting the past and present is of course a baked good.

These connections can feel forced and the dialogue between the two is somewhat heavy-handed. But despite all this, the story moves at an impressive pace. Fans of “The Great British Baking Show” will appreciate Ford’s many winks and nods to his formula – and find themselves engaged in a minor struggle: Do I keep reading to find out what’s going on? will come next or do I start cooking this delicious rhubarb and custard cake? Indeed, some of the most enjoyable parts of “Mrs. Quinn’s Rise to Fame” is about old-fashioned and wonderfully named British cakes – Tunnock’s, Battenburg, Cut and Come Again, to name a few – and getting some useful baking tips. (What can you do with bread that doesn’t work well? Make bread and butter pudding!) Ultimately, Ford takes you back to that cozy world, where there’s something in the oven, where you somehow know (or at least believe) that everything will be okay.

MRS. QUINN’S RISE TO FAME | By Olivia Ford | Pamela Dorman Books/Viking | 384 pp. | $29

Leave a Reply