Black Cake

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I read the Large Print version so page numbers may be different.  This book is what I call a potato chip book; the chapters are short so you keep reading because you think, just one more. (See what I did there?  I put the words in boldface instead of quotes, just like the book does.)

The book begins with a Prologue set in 1965.  I usually find prologues question-generating and minorly confusing but this one I read twice and still didn't like it, mainly because of sequencing.  The narrator complains about their hak gwai wife, daughter, parents.  I felt like it should've been parents, wife, daughter - the order that these people came into his life.)  Additionally, there is a heavy use of boldface instead of "quotation marks".  The bold foreign word led me to think there was a glossary somewhere, but I didn't find one.

Then the first chapter is set in 2018 and we meet Byron and Benny (brother and sister).  I feel like they could have had more distinct names and a more feminine sounding name. (Benny is actually Benedetta, but we don't learn that initially and I found myself having to pause every time I read a name to recall which was who.)  Byron is an ocean scientist.  Benny is a 37 year-old aspiring cafe owner who has been at odds with her family for eight years.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex:  1

Religion: 1  

Gruesome: 2

Suspense: 2

Morality:  2

Traditional: 3

Sex - teenagers "clinging and probing" (LP Pg. 65)

Religion - "Pearl raised her arms in the air and railed at the God in which she had been taught to trust." (LP Pg. 230)

Gruesome - Lin beat his daughter with a belt. (LP Pg. 68)  Mafia-types were rumored to mistreat women (off-pages) and even rough-up men. (LP Pg. 78) When Benny was holding the measuring cup and remembering using it for soup, she remembered having bruises but we don't know why. (LP Pg. 88)  A suicide attempt. (LP Pg. 225)

Suspense - teens swimming in ocean with an approaching hurricane, fire at local businesses. Where was Covey after the wedding? (LP Pg. 183)  How are Covey and the other islanders connected to Byron and Benny?  Would Marble return?  How would Byron handle meeting Johnny?

Morality - an older man thinks he can have his way with a young girl because her father is indebted to him. Hints at domestic violence: "Benny, in bed with bruises all over." (LP Pg. 108) Or bruises might be from the bully in college. (LP Pg. 109) A boss makes advances on an employee. (LP Pg. 238) A pregnant woman tells the baby daddy that the baby is more hers than his.

Traditional - Benny references a relationship with Joanie and also with Steve. (LP Pg. 25-26)  No clear statement, but it is assumed she is bi-sexual.  More confusion demonstrated on LP Pg. 32.  A hint that Bunny would like to be more than best friends with Covey. (LP Pg. 62)  As Covey grows into a woman, Lin noticed that the men around town were looking at his daughter, and even one man's wife who was "that way". (LP Pg. 66)  LP Pg. 72 confirms that Bunny was in love with Covey. Two females kiss. (LP Pg. 110)  A female kisses a male but sleeps with a female. (LP Pg. 233-34) Several instances of domestic abuse. 

Late in the book there is some commentary on being black in America in reference to police and a traffic stop gone wrong. (LP Pg. 413-415)

Discussion Questions

Benny considered not talking to her family as a form of self-care. (LP Pg. 16) How do you feel about this form of self-care?

Benny's parents kept their sofa in plastic for nine years until they realized they should enjoy it now, while they are alive.  (LP Pg. 24)
Do you save your nicest things or enjoy them now?

Discuss the contradiction of telling your children they can be anything vs. we sacrifice so you can have the best (parent's version of the best).  (LP Pg. 24)  What message do you give your children?

"Benny was Benny.  Always needing attention, always needing approval... . ...Benny had become this person who didn't leave room for dialogue.  Either you were with her or you were against her." (LP Pg. 32)  Does this describe anyone in your life?

" 'What are you willing to do?' his mother once asked him when he made a comment about taking flack from some of the guys in high school. 'Are you doing something wrong, Byron? Do you think you're a bad person for getting a perfect score on that test? For being recognized for your work? Are you going to let someone else's view of who you should be and what you should do, hold you back? Do you think those boys are really your friends? ... So what are you willing to do? ... Who are you willing to let go of?' " (LP Pg. 34) Have you ever had to take this advice?  Or have you given similar advice?  How did it turn out?

"Lin kept his mouth shut. There were things that one father avoided saying to another, things that could ruin a friendship." (LP Pg. 71) Have you been in a similar situation? Whose friendship would it ruin - adults or kids, or both?

Benny had an old measuring cup that her mother gave her as "a little piece of home". (LP Pg. 83) Do you have an old or favorite measuring cup?   Benny's room was painted turquoise.  (LP Pg. 89) Did you have a special color room?

How did you think Covey and Bunny were related to Byron's and Benny's mom?  

Covey hated the color lilac, but Pearl used it on the cake flowers to send a message.  (LP Pg. 159) What did you understand the message to be?  What did you think killed Little Man? And who did you think was responsible because, "No one was more shocked than Pearl"? (LP Pg. 160)  Byron thought Covey might have killed Lil Man, but doesn't her surprise at the color of flowers show she hadn't seen the cake. (ref. LP Pg. 159)

Bunny knew Covey was happiest with Gibbs.  "In time, it would comfort her, simply, to remember that Covey had once been happy."  (LP Pg. 233)  Tell of a time when you found comfort in someone else's happiness, even if it wasn't the way you hoped it'd be.

Benny wonders, with everything her mom went through, why she didn't try harder to hold on to Benny. (LP Pg. 258)  How do you explain the mother's lack of action?

Cable loved old movies because the good guys won or died heroes and they had "a clear attitude about life". (LP Pg. 281) Do you like old movies?  Why?

Eleanor had never told Burt about her first child, "because she understood that if you wanted someone to keep loving you, you couldn't ask them to bear all of your burdens, couldn't risk letting them see all of who you were.  No one really wanted to know another person that well." (LP Pg. 272)  Do you agree?  Are there things you've held back?

Eleanor tries to justify not fighting for Benny as loyalty to Bert.  "When Bert had been stubborn, Eleanor had stuck by his side. You couldn't explain something like this to your child." (LP Pg. 275) Was Bert stubborn about not pursuing Benny?  Was that enough justification?

"Why do we women let shame get in the way of our well being?" (LP Pg. 307)

"There's your family history, there's how you see yourself, and then there's what others see in you. ... your identity, like it or not". Do you like your identity?  What would you change if you could? (LP Pg. 312) 

Marble had doubts about her parentage.  Did you ever doubt yours?  Do most kids have doubts?

Had you realized that Benny was named for Bunny?

When Johnny's story wraps up at the end of the novel, we are told he lost two wives to gambling and is now with his third wife. 
Why was it significant to mention the second wife, whom we never saw?

Who did you think killed Little Man and how did you think they did it?

How was Bunny being clumsy, even late in life in her 70's, a significant character trait?

Were you satisfied with the ending? 
Everything seemed to be wrapped up for everyone - was it fair that they all seemed to get a happy ending?

The Author's Note explains that most of these characters "do not quite fit into the boxes that others have set up for them." (LP Pg. 525)  Have you broken out of your boxes?

What recipes are handed down in your family?

Theme Ideas

Decorate with a jar of fruit soaking in rum and port, since there are several comments throughout the book that it is better to just always have some fruit soaking it must have been a regular part of the kitchen scenery.

Decorate with candles in glass jars like Covey remembered using when the power went out. (LP Pg. 42)

Decorate with a southwest style because Benny liked Arizona.

Decorate with the things Eleanor remembered from her childhood, when she was at the store that sold island food: red hibiscus, naseberry, dwarf coconut trees, tamarind pods and bird of paradise. (LP Pg. 269)

Meet in a cafe, in honor of Benny's aspirations. 

Have a potluck with everyone bringing a family recipe that has been handed down from their ancestors.

Serve biscuits and coffee like Byron served Mr. Mitch when he went to the mom's home. (LP Pg. 30)

Serve fresh snapper and casava cakes like Covey and Bunny got from Fishie. (LP Pg. 52)

Serve fried breadfruit or hot chewy dumplings, like after swim club when Pearl was fixing dinner. (LP Pg. 55)

Serve pineapple like Gibbs and Covey had on the beach. (LP Pg. 62)

Serve mango like Covey ate when Lin forbade her to swim in the sea. (LP Pg. 68)

Serve chicken, rice and peas with a "scent of coconut milk and garlic" like Covey and Pearl served to the men after the fire. (LP Pg. 76)

Serve some of the other foods that Byron liked, such as gizzada, mango ice cream, jerk pork, rice and peas, Scotch bonnett peppers, coconut milk and yellow plaintains. (LP Pg. 124)

Serve Thai takeout like B & B opted for instead of the grief casseroles. (LP Pg. 126)

Serve tamarind balls like Covey was making in the Spring of 1965 when Pa told her Lil Man was going to court her. (LP Pg. 134)

Serve what Pearl cooked for Lin after Covey was gone: oxtail stew, rice and peas, fried plantain, callaloo. (LP Pg. 224)

Serve suey mein, which is island food, not Chinese food. (LP Pg. 267)

Serve Italian coffee in honor of Marble Martin's debate with the coffee man. (LP Pg. 343)

Serve "toast, jam, eggs, coffee, and ... tea" like B & B served Marble. (LP Pg. 430)

Serve rice and beans with scallions, garlic and coconut milk like when they all got together near the end to scatter ashes. (LP Pg. 523)

Serve lime water with "slices of lime and a maraschino cherry floating in each drink" like Johnny served when he met his grandkids. (LP Pg. 483)