Review: The City Baker's Guide to Country Living

Boston pastry chef Olivia Rawlings relishes her role as creator of elegant desserts for a chic Back Bay supper club. But when a flambé gone wrong sets the entire place on fire, Livvy packs up her dog, Salty, and flees to the tiny town of Guthrie, Vt. Her best friend, Hannah, helps her find a new job: baking at the Sugar Maple Inn, run by Margaret, a stern widow. Margaret is determined to reclaim her blue-ribbon status in the annual pie-baking contest at the local county fair, and Livvy settles in to help her, making desserts for the inn and testing countless pie variations. Living with Salty in the inn's sugarhouse, she gradually makes friends with a few of the locals, some of whom share her love of banjo music. But Livvy, accustomed to leaving and being left, isn't sure she can settle down in such a small community. In her debut novel, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living, Louise Miller brings both the pastry chef and her creations to life.

A pastry chef by training, Miller knows her ingredients and describes them to mouthwatering effect: flaky piecrust, tart apples and rich dark chocolate, as well as more exotic concoctions. Her writing also contains the ingredients for a satisfying story: engaging characters, including Livvy's coworkers and her neighbors; a setting that both welcomes and frustrates her main character; and a loudmouthed but lonely protagonist with a penchant for crayon-colored hair dyes, who must face up to her own fears and shortcomings before she can truly claim Guthrie as home.

In the hands of a less accomplished writer, Livvy's story might read as cliché: woman fleeing troubled city life finds hope and meaning in a small town. But Miller's plot contains a few unexpected twists, and her characters, even the supporting ones, are refreshingly complicated and gloriously flawed. Livvy learns from her mistakes, but continues to make fresh ones even though she knows better--a pie might rescue an afternoon, but it doesn't fix everything--and nearly every one of Miller's characters has much to learn about forgiveness and acceptance. Miller delights in the sensory details of her story--melancholy banjo chords, lipstick-red autumn leaves--while exploring the vagaries of community: the ways we wound and heal each other.

Warmhearted and hopeful, with a dash of melancholy and more than a pinch of humor, The City Baker's Guide to Country Living is a treat. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: A big-hearted debut novel follows a pastry chef who flees Boston for a new life in small-town Vermont.

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