When first we meet Kate Fanshaw, she’s a woman with one broken spirit. Back from a weekend trip with her aloof and inconsiderate husband, Rodney, she finds her lovely English home in a shambles — and all at the hands of her teenage son, Charlie. Bottles are strewn about; urine puddles on the floor. And after a disastrous weekend spent trying to “reconnect” with her boorish husband, Kate has definitely had it.
We know where she is now.
Just not how she got there.
Carrie Kabak’s Cover The Butter, first published in 2005, is the story of one woman’s coming-of-age: the twists, turns and broken relationships that brought her to that wrecked kitchen in what was once her marital home. We’re introduced to her controlling and manipulative mother, Biddy; her mousy but attentive father, Tom; her Scottish grandparents, the true heroes of this story, Mamgu and Griff; and Kate’s best friends from school, Moira and Ingrid. We travel back in time to when Kate was a teen herself, standing complacently as Biddy ordered her about. Trying to please her mother. Trying to get her mother’s attention.
Kabak’s novel is, first and foremost, an exploration of motherhood — and what it means to be a mother and a daughter. And Biddy? Well, she isn’t a very good one. The entire length of the book, Biddy dangles her approval over Kate’s head like a balloon: visible but always out of reach. Unattainable. It’s not until she meets Rodney — dependable, boring, from-good-stock Rodney — that Biddy finally begins to show her only child some approval. And Kate craves it like a drug.
I started Cover The Butter over the weekend and devoured it quickly, soaking up as many passages at a time as I could. Highly readable and with excellent voice and flow, Kabak’s writing was engaging, entertaining and unique. Told entirely from Kate’s perspective, I really felt like I got to know our heroine — and could relate to her struggles to please everyone in the world but herself. When her mother dismisses her dreams of baking and canning preserves, she banishes them, too. When Rodney tells her he’d prefer her to stay home with the baby, building her life up within the home, she does.
On the surface, it seems as though Kate allows her parents, friends and boyfriends to control her — and as we make our way through the decades of her life, that definitely seems to be the case. It’s not until she finally gives herself permission to displease her parents and live for herself that she’s free. And it takes many years to get there, yes, but get there she does. I’ve read reviews expressing frustration and total annoyance at Kate’s door-mat-ness, and I understand where readers are coming from — but for me? It was all very true to character. After a lifetime of being molded by her mother’s talons, Kate wasn’t going to suddenly kick off her shackles and tell them all to get bent. What child doesn’t search for love and affection from a parent? And hurt when they don’t receive it?
The book’s strength, for me, came from Kate herself. It was fascinating to read about a woman’s entire life — or, well, the life she’s lived to date. Sprinkled with plenty of humor and anecdotes, Cover The Butter had a serious side, too, and dealt with plenty of growing-up issues. But for as dense as that sounds, the story flew by in Kabak’s capable hands. By the time I’d reached the story’s denouement, I was shocked. Over so soon?
Fans of women’s fiction and/or British fiction might find this a warm, interesting and entertaining read that hasn’t garnered much attention. And if you head into the novel knowing Kate lives most of her life on someone else’s timeframe, you’ll appreciate her a little better. And hopefully cheer a little louder when she’s finally released from those bonds.
4 out of 5!