The “Great British Bake Off” is a show that just keeps giving; eleven seasons of the television show, cookbooks from the show, the judges, and competitors plus a snappy little Canadian version. Finalists from each season have built huge social media followings, or become television hosts themselves – like Liam Charles and Nadiya Hussain (she is also writing novels based on the Little Women story in The Secret Lives of the Amir Sisters series). Although I have been a passionate fan of all iterations of the GBB, the best gift has got to be Alexis Hall’s latest novel Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake which takes inspiration from the British baking show in so many ways.
Main character Rosaline is a contestant on “Bake Expectations”, a weekly televised baking competition that takes place in a British ballroom which has weekly challenges judged by well-known experts, and a quirky celebrity host who can make any conversation about biscuits sound interesting. Uncanny, right? Alexis Hall has obviously scoured every Bake Off interview to ensure that he gets the details right, and it shows, you can almost hear the soothing Tom Howe soundtrack while you are reading this novel set in the baking reality show world.
Rosaline is a 27-year-old single mother with a talent for baking and parenting. After leaving university to focus on raising her daughter, Amelie, she thinks it’s time to follow her dreams – to try to win Bake Expectations, gain some financial security and maybe even a little respect from her disapproving parents. It seems like a small risk, but it will disrupt the careful life she has built to raise eight-year-old Amelie – Rosaline works part-time so she can be available before and after school, and accepts financial support from her parents and Amelie’s absent father – but relies mainly on her ex-girlfriend, Lauren, for babysitting and emotional support.
The novel opens with Lauren narrating aloud as Rosaline creates a practice chocolate cake and their conversation is exactly what you would expect of former romantic partners who turned into lifelong friends. They have true-to-life conversations and are side-splittingly funny, as were the characters in Hall’s previous novel Boyfriend Material.
It’s almost unfair to call Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake a romance. It has a romantic comedy vibe, with the romance being a piece of the story, but not the main thread. There are multiple love stories going on here: one between two best friends, the love between a mother and daughter, and the new friendships that form quickly between the competitors in “Bake Expectations”, with the added possibility of romantic love for Rosaline. She goes on dates and explores that exciting side of her life, but the focus of her story is on succeeding in the competition, connecting with the other contestants, and always on parenting Amelie. As a side note, the Amelie character is spectacular, I would read an entire book of this eight-year-old discussing life with her mother and Lauren. Whether she is interested in sea life, discovering new vocabulary, or debating the injustice of brushing her teeth, she is a crackerjack of a character.
Part of the romantic fun is that Rosaline is choosing between two options in the novel and it’s pretty clear from the beginning which one is the right pick (don’t skip the Reading Group Guide at the end of this book as the author includes hilarious content re: love interests and recipes mentioned in the book) but the journey to the end is an enjoyable one. As the competition moves through each challenge – Week One: Chocolate, Week Two: Pie, Week Three: Bread, etc. – the other contestants on the show feel comfortable offering opinions on who she should be spending her time with and each week when she gets back to London, so does Lauren! By and large Rosaline is able to focus on her bakes and each week the competitors make pies, sweetbreads, pans of cookies and, in one memorable week, layer cakes decorated with macarons. Oh, that was a showstopper of a week. The mix of friendship, romance and baking is everything a reader would hope for with the added pleasure of a charming eight-year-old.
The book comes to a natural end when “Bake Expectations” reaches the final episode with a satisfying happily ever after for Rosalie, Amelie, and Lauren. Alexis Hall gives them (and us) a moment that is more than worthy of every baking cliche you’ve ever seen – it is the icing on the cake, it’s delicious, it’s so good you’ll go back for seconds. Mary Berry herself would probably read it and say, “Now I think that was really scrummy!”
— Penny M.