MEETING THE ENGLISH
By Kate Clanchy. (St. Martin's Press, 311 pages, $24.99.)
When crotchety, sexist, unpleasant novelist Phillip Prys is brushing his teeth one spring day in 1989, he is felled by a stroke, falling to the bathroom floor and jerking "as if he were being shaken by an invisible policeman." And that sets in motion poet Kate Clanchy's delightful debut novel, "Meeting the English," in which a storm of people (Prys' blowzy first wife, his cool-as-a-cucumber second wife, his self-absorbed children, his daughter's anorexic friend, his agent and others) rage ineptly, fighting with one another, plotting to sell Prys' house, auction off his valuable manuscripts, move him to a home.
At the center of the novel is not Prys himself, but his caregiver, the levelheaded and engaging Struan, the only one who has Prys' well-being at heart. It is Struan's teacher, Mr. Fox, who urges him to apply for the job, mostly to get him out of his small hometown in Scotland. "Travel is broadening," Mr. Fox says, pointing out that he himself has been to Thailand. Struan is afraid of England, intimidated by the idea of the English, has "never been South," but off he goes, bringing order out of the Prys family chaos in his sweet and sensible manner. (And he finds that there are no English, just Londoners — and they come from everywhere: Wales, Denmark, Iran.)
Along the way he gets his heart broken and teaches the others valuable life lessons about compassion and love. This is masterful social comedy, almost Shakespearean in its intrigue and insight.
LAURIE HERTZEL, Senior editor/books
THE ART OF BAKING BLIND
By Sarah Vaughan. (St. Martin's Press, 406 pages, $25.99.)
Fans of "The Great British Baking Show" will have images from that PBS series in their minds as they begin this debut novel. But those soon fade as the contestants' private lives are revealed, as layered as puff pastry.
Jenny's marriage is crumbling, Vicki's toddler is demanding, Karen has secrets (and how), Claire struggles to make ends meet, and Mike, well, as the lone man in the mix, he gets short shrift. This is a book about women and motherhood, about wanting babies and trying to please those who birthed you.
The bakers are competing to become the new Kathleen Eaden — a British Betty Crocker — and, while it's initially a challenge to keep everyone straight, their revealed lives bring each into sharper focus. Chick lit? Sure, but any woman who has struggled with balancing work and family, much less seeking her own sense of self, will find a character to root for.
Also, be forewarned: Do not read this book within reach of baked goods. You'll lick the plate clean without even realizing what just happened.
KIM ODE, Features writer