Book review: ‘All the Summer Girls’ by Meg Donohue

All the Summer GirlsThree friends, three cities, three completely different lives . . . and one summer house filled with memories, ready to be revisited — or best left in the past.

In Philadelphia, good girl Kate is dumped by her fiance the day she learns she is pregnant with his child. In New York City, beautiful stay-at-home mom Vanessa is obsessively searching the Internet for news of an old flame. And in San Francisco, Dani, the aspiring writer who can’t seem to put down a book — or a cocktail — long enough to open her laptop, has just been fired . . . again.

In an effort to regroup, Kate, Vanessa, and Dani retreat to the New Jersey beach town where they once spent their summers. Emboldened by the seductive cadences of the shore, the women being to realize how much their lives, and friendships, have been shaped by the choices they made one fateful night on the beach eight years earlier — and the secrets that only now threaten to surface. (Goodreads)

Meg Donohue’s All the Summer Girls is a story of friendship.

Oh, it’s about more than that, too — like motherhood and substance abuse and grief and first love. But beyond those tiny, inconsequential little topics? It’s friendship. Sisterhood. The bonds of women — the marks we make upon each other, and how we flounder or thrive in the aftermath of loss.

A fateful night one summer eight years before drove a wedge between this once-inseparable trio: three friends who grew up visiting the same beach house each summer in Avalon, New Jersey. It took me about 30 pages to clarify who was with whom and what they were doing and where they lived, etc., but once I had the principle players down, I was hooked on Donohue’s latest. Her sophomore effort delved much deeper into her characters’ interior lives than How To Eat A Cupcake, which I really appreciated. And who couldn’t use a little literary vacation to the Jersey Shore? (Sans Snooki, of course.)

Almost a decade later, each woman is carrying a secret — or a half-truth — about one tragic night. Though Kate and Vanessa have moved jerkily forward, Dani is as broken as ever. Despite her messy edges (or maybe because of them?), Dani was my favorite character. An aspiring novelist and lost soul who wanders San Francisco like a ghost, Dani dances with too many personal demons . . . and I really felt for her. More than the others. When she reunites with Vanessa and Kate after losing her twelfth job in seven years (no small feat), we know her tough, somber exterior is just a mask.

Vanessa. Despite empathizing with her desire to sift through the painful end of a first love, I found something about her to be off-putting. Despite all she’s gone through in her marriage, something about her was alarming. But she didn’t irk me, persay; just functioned more as an enigma. I knew her the least of the women — and was the least interested in her.

But Kate. My Type-A side could relate to this serious, steadfast lawyer; my tender side broke in half as she struggled with the end of an engagement and new, unexpected pregnancy (all facts revealed almost immediately, so no spoilers). She’s never come to terms with what happened in Avalon eight years ago, changing her family forever, and her fiance’s ultimatum that she come to terms with it was heartbreaking. And that her friends would declare A Kate is a Kate is a Kate felt, to me, like the highest kind of compliment. She’s loyal, honest and true.

The book is quick and fast and, dare I say it, an excellent “beach read.” I hesitate to use the term too often because we hear it all the time as soon as Memorial Day rolls around. Plus, you know, some readers dismiss “beach reads” as fluffy entertainment — and All the Summer Girls has real heart. I felt the ends were wrapped nicely without convenient “tied with a bow” packaging, and I appreciated the resolute — even hopeful — close. After the heartache, it was a balm.

With mystery, beautiful language and a gorgeous beach backdrop, Donohue’s story will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, novels on friendship and books laced with emotion and drama in equal measure. All the Summer Girls deserves that much-coveted spot next to your SPF 30 — or the spot on your nightstand to simply take you away.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062203819 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Snack after reading

A quick look at my Instagram account will reveal one powerful, inalienable truth: I’m obsessed with food.

Whether I’m cooking it, presenting it, photographing it or, you know, eating it, food and I go way back. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways — including going up a dress size — but never has it been more obvious than when scrolling through the 500-plus snapshots I’ve shared.

And through my reading, apparently. If the plot revolves around a cooking class, a market or a bakery, I’m salivating — and reach for the paperback. I’ve recently noticed an upward trend in “foodie fiction” — stories centering on eating, baking, the restaurant life. From Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School to Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, popular characters are perfecting their culinary skills — and often falling in love in the process.

I love these plots. I’ll make no bones about it, y’all; I adore a good love story, and talking macarons and wedding cakes as well is a quick way to win me over. There’s just something warm and comforting about foodie fiction. I rejoice in mealtimes and love trying new things, I suppose, so getting to “travel” through another’s kitchen is delightful.

As long as I’m not reading on an empty stomach.

Of the books I’ve read in the foodie fiction and non-fiction categories lately, I’ve distilled my favorites into this collection. Glancing through the 2012-13 line-up, it looks like we have much to look forward to in the way of food-related reading — including Megan Caldwell’s Vanity Fare, which sounds delectable. I’ll bring my fork.

A sampling of fun foodie fiction

Life From Scratch by Melissa Ford

To plagiarize myself, Ford incorporates fresh prose and likeable characters in this Julie & Julia-esque look at one woman learning to cook following tons of personal tumult. Rachel’s adventures in the kitchen were funny and realistic, and I finished this slim book wanting another 100 pages. She would make an awesome dinner host — and everything sounded delicious.

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee

When it comes to baking, Gee’s characters might not think they have what it takes — but a shared batch of friendship bread, which becomes a yeasty chain letter, unites the characters in her small town.

“You know that cozy feeling that envelopes you when you take a bite of warm chocolate cake, homemade cookies, fresh-baked bread or apple pie? Well, Darien Gee does, too — and that’s exactly how she created Friendship Bread, one of the most heartwarming books I’ve read in a long time,” I wrote in 2011. And darn if I wasn’t totally right. This cozy read sucked me in.

The Bake-Off by Beth Kendrick

An epic sister rivalry, a baking contest, an adorable grandmother, a fantastic-sounding apple pie recipe — everything blends beautifully in Kendrick’s novel, which I read and enjoyed last year. It’s fun and frothy, sweet and fun — but with heart. And even after getting ten kinds of complicated, the baking contest sounded like a blast.

How To Eat A Cupcake by Meg Donohue

Between its San Francisco setting, drama and delicious treats, Donohue’s novel centering on two unlikely friends coming together to open a bakery drew me in — and left me with a powerful craving for sweets. Though the novel had a few “Um, what?” moments for me, it kept my interest throughout and had me wanting to do some serious late-night baking.

Have any other fun, food-related recommendations? Please share them in the comments. I’m always up for a new taste sensation.

Book review: ‘How To Eat A Cupcake’ by Meg Donohue

Lured in by the siren song of dessert — in the title and on the cover — I eagerly grabbed Meg Donohue’s How To Eat A Cupcake and expected a light, fun read. I got that — and a little more than I bargained for. Though it didn’t shake up my world, it was a pleasant diversion with heart.

Childhood best friends Annie Quintana and Julia St. Clair grew up in the same home — albeit in very different circumstances. Wealthy, leggy and popular Julia never struggled to fit in as Annie did, effortlessly striding through life with the help of her socialite parents. Annie, the daughter of a single immigrant, grew up watching her lovely mother, Lucia, care for the St. Clairs as though they were family . . . though the divide was ever-present, even if Lucia didn’t see it that way.

A tussle and family death in high school create a rift between the girls, separating them until Julia returns to San Francisco a decade later. Now nursing their own hurts, the women reunite in pursuit of a common goal: opening and maintaining a cupcake shop. As Julia struggles to plan her wedding to Wes, a handsome and dependable Southerner, Annie crafts delicious confections at the bakery the pair open. But family secrets and old heartaches threaten to ruin everything . . .

So here we have a pair of very unlikely friends: the snobby, spoiled daughter of aristocrats and the savvy, curvy and outspoken first-generation American who was once her partner in crime. Sounds a bit cliche on the surface, I know, and who hasn’t read a book about two friends from different sides of the tracks? But I was pleasantly surprised by How To Eat A Cupcake, though a few points didn’t sit right with me. Let’s peel back the cupcake liner and take a bite.

Initially, Julia is exactly the type of snot I despise: a gorgeous former prom queen who glides through life in perfect high heels. From the get-go I felt like I was on Annie’s “side,” believing without a doubt that Julia was capable of being manipulative and callous. It’s obvious Julia is Going Through Some Things (big, oh-so-mysterioussss things) and Annie is, well . . . not. In Julia’s eyes, anyway. She’s too self-obsessed and delusional to realize other people have invisible wounds, too.

Annie is the tough-as-nails baker chick who doesn’t let anyone — or anything — crack her veneer, though she’s not obnoxious about it. Since losing her mother (not a spoiler; we learn this early on), she’s desperate to reconnect with Lucia — and she’s convinced her mom’s secrets are kept in a recipe book that also functioned as her diary. But, of course, that baby is nowhere to be found.

That’s where the book derailed for me a bit — instead of focusing on the damaged friendship between two women with a lifetime of shared history, we’re presented two “mysteries” to solve: the case of someone vandalizing the cupcake shop they open in the Mission, and the creepiness of some dude who has been lurking around at night. The cases could be linked, we think, and the story dissolves into some sort of “whodunnit?” that felt awkward and out-of-place in an otherwise light novel. About cupcakes.

That’s not to say it was bad. When the truth eventually came out, especially about the hooded lurker, I was surprised — in a good way. Both Annie and Julia make amazing transformations in the story, too, which is broken down by month. Julia’s calculated “way to eat a cupcake” is signature to her character — a type-A planner; an organized control freak who can’t just lose herself in a dessert. By contrast, Annie is the free-wheeling dreamer who has no trouble just biting into a pastry. And I was pleased with how their friendship changed and progressed throughout the novel.

Aside from a few qualms with the mysteries, I read this book quickly and enjoyed the references to San Francisco. It has a definite sense of place — breezy, ritzy California — and plenty of fabulous appearances by chocolate, flour and frosting. I really liked Ogden, too; he’s the hunky farmer supplying organic fruit to the shop. But the story wasn’t a romance, and it wasn’t about “partnering up” every character. The “big reveal” about what’s troubling Julia was no surprise to me, but I still felt for her — and hoped she would work things out with Wes, her globe-trotting fiance.

Fans of foodie fiction and stories exploring the complexities of women’s friendship will find a light, diverting read in How To Eat A Cupcake. Though I wish Donohue had delved even deeper into their shared past and explored the complications of growing up both poor and rich in the same home, it was a good read.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062069284 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers