December 21st marked the U.S. release of author and WU contributor Barbara O’Neal’s latest novel, How to Bake a Perfect Life, which has already been named a TARGET CLUB PICK! <Insert wild applause!> How to Bake a Perfect Life is the third delicious foodie novel from Barbara in as many years, following on the heels of the successful The Lost Recipe for Happiness and The Secret of Everything. How is this novel unique? And–just as important–will there be recipes?
We’re thrilled Barbara is here today to tell us more about her latest work. Mangia mangia!
Q: What’s the premise of your new book?
This is a story of mothers and daughters: good mothers, bad mothers, and all the imperfect levels in-between. The main character, Ramona Gallagher, is both a mother and a daughter, with a difficult history that includes bearing a child at the age of fifteen.
Now that daughter, Sofia, is married and pregnant with her first child. When Sofia’s husband is grievously wounded in Afghanistan, she races to his side, leaving Ramona as the only suitable guardian for Sophia’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Katie, whose mother has gone back to rehab for a drug habit. Naturally, the heartbroken Katie feels that she’s being dumped again.
As Ramona tries to slyly mother the lost and faintly hostile Katie, she also has to juggle the challenges of a crumbling Victorian that houses her bakery, hold the tent up for her daughter, and navigate the murky waters of her relationship with her own mother. She really doesn’t have any time or energy to deal with the intensity of an old love showing up…but there he is, looking at her like she is the most beautiful creature he’s ever seen.
Q: What would you like people to know about the story itself?
I used the metaphor of sourdough, “mother dough” as it is known, for this book because sourdough is unique according to the wild yeasts in the air, who tends the starter, how it is fed, all those things. Just like the particularities of each mother/daughter combination. (I baked a lot of bread to find the right recipes to include, too, so that should be a lot of fun for any cooks out there!)
In How To Bake a Perfect Life, there are good mothers, and bad, and mothers who are like most of us: women who do their best, but still sometimes cause children damage and disaster, who make things worse while trying to make them better. There is no manual of motherhood, after all. We all tend the delicate loaves of children the best we can.
It’s also a tribute to the “other mothers” that come into our lives at critical moments, and the way they can shape us.
Q: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?
Ramona is in a very difficult position as the book opens. Her son-in-law is on the brink of death, her daughter is very pregnant, and her bakery is on a very thin margin. 13-year-old Katie arrives, along with her railroad hobo of a dog, insisting that her meth-addicted mother will be fine and soon come to get her, and tugs on every lost-child memory Ramona has of the lonely summer she spent exiled on her Aunt Poppy’s farm. As if that isn’t enough, a man from her past walks in, offering a possibility for new love just when she hasn’t another ounce of energy. She has to learn when to fight, when to hold the line, and when to let go.
Q: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?
Writing about mothers and daughters, with all those layers of love and hope and disaster and meanness was very challenging, especially as I am quite close to my own mother and I never wanted her to read anything into any of the relationships. Of course she likely will, and probably there is commentary in the narrative that I can’t even see clearly, but when a book shows up so insistently, a writer’s obligation is to be as faithful as possible to the story.
Q: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?
Baking bread! Even before I wrote this book, I was a passionate bread baker, and I’ve won prizes for my sourdoughs, in particular, but I learned a tremendous amount about great bread and how to make it as I wrote How to Bake a Perfect Life. I experimented with many different forms of sourdough starters, from Tasmanian to San Franciscan to potato water starters; I bought every imaginable variety of flour to experiment with, and read deeply on the subject. I can’t even calculate how many loaves of bread I baked last winter. One of my favorites didn’t make the cut into the recipes in the book because it was impossible to make it mine without ruining the perfection of it, a blue-cheese rye loaf in Local Breads, which I’ve written about at A Writer Afoot.
Readers, you can learn more about Barbara’s book on her website, and you can buy it at brick-and-mortar stores everywhere and, of course, online.