The Secret to Hummingbird Cake

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SPOILER ALERT: If you read this review, you will know which character gets pregnant, and which character gets cancer. From there you can figure out which character dies.

We read two books in a row that were set in Alabama (It All Comes Back to You and Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe). Now this one is about pastry (cake) just like the last book (Blackbird Cafe) was about pie. Funny how books connect one to another. This book is set in Bon Dieu Falls, Louisiana - close to Alabama. The audio book pronounces it like Bon-da. Bon Dieu is French for "good God". (That comes from me, not the book.) According to Google maps it does not seem to be a real place but other internet searches show there is a festival and perhaps a fort of this name near Montgomery, Louisiana.

This book centers around three women. Carrigan is the main character. She and Ella Rae were already friends when they met Laine (pronounced Lane) on the playground when they were all five years old. (ePg. 6, loc. 132) Now they are in their early 30's. In the beginning it's a very nice story. Then, about half way through, it seems like they suddenly try to compete with the best rom-com movies, maybe in the hopes that this story will be seen on the big screen. Everything is written to seem over-the-top funny and a lot of it winds up, in my opinion, trying too hard and coming across as even more inauthentic when I didn't think that was possible. For example, compare the beginning of Chapter 8 with the beginning of Chapter 15. "July was hotter...and...busier..." vs. " a house full of people...nervous wreck...provide me their full medical history...last time they sneezed...buffet of assorted hand sanitizers...germ-laden people salivating to hold my baby...etc." I did not appreciate the shift in style. Had it been comedy-on-steroids from the beginning, I might've been okay with it. Instead, just as I was settling into the groove, there was a radical shift and it left me uncomfortable for the rest of the book. Especially the funeral scene. (ePg. 232, loc. 3155 and ePg. 265, loc. 3608) Additionally, there were a number of over-dramatic scenes. I mean, you can expect some drama in a book about dying, but when Carrigan runs away from Laine's bedside and out to the barn and Jack finds her (ePg. 222, loc. 3047) - the whole thing just seemed a little contrived. They even include a joke about Carrigan not responding when the funeral director called "Mrs. Whitfield" because that's her mother-in-law. (ePg. 238, loc. 3244) This made me feel like the author had been given a standardized list of all the jokes she needed to include - or maybe she got a bonus for each one off the list. I mean, by this point, Carrigan had been married to Jack Whitfield for ten years already - and she still doesn't know her own name?

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 2

Religion: 4

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 0

Morality: 2

Traditional: 3

Sex - a married couple had an intimate afternoon on a blanket and in a barn at a farm - no details. (ePg. 89, loc. 1238) Friends imply that they overheard a married couple having sex. (ePg. 114, loc. 1562) A joke about putting "maxi pads on my tatas" in reference to nursing pads. (ePg. 234, loc. 3189) A couple ties to "reconnect" before their baby wakes up. (ePg. 277, loc. 3756)

Religion - Carrigan tells a joke about Catholics speaking to each other in the liquor store when Baptists won't. (ePg. 65, loc. 918) Carrigan says Laine made Carrigan "promise to go to church the next Sunday just for suggesting she have a 'baster baby out of wedlock'." (ePg. 67, loc. 938) Laine told Carrigan to take her guilt to God - Laine had a deep faith but Carrigan "had nothing to say to God". (ePg. 116, loc. 1594) A character says that terminating a pregnancy "was absolutely out of the question". (ePg. 121, loc. 1670) Laine recognized and felt gratitude for her blessings, while Carrigan was angry at God and stopped speaking to Him. (ePg. 135, loc. 1852-1858) "Laine wasn't afraid to die" because her faith "had been bolstered. She spoke of heaven as if she'd seen it already. She could see her daddy again, her grandparents, a cousin she'd lost early in her life. Even pets." (ePg. 199, loc. 2726) Grandma said thunderstorms were opportunity for angels to come down and pick up souls. (ePg. 215, loc. 2950) Carrigan questioned God's timing regarding the process of dying. (ePg. 217, loc. 2966) Beautiful description of dying. (ePg. 229, loc. 3119) Carrigan told Ella Rae she "can't curse in church" and Ella Rae retorted, "Like God can't hear me when I'm outside?" (ePg. 242, loc. 3295) Minister at the funeral describes Heaven. (ePg. 268, loc. 3659) Carrigan continued to question God in her search for answers about why Laine had to die. (ePg. 274, loc. 3717) Carrigan tried to talk to Laine in the night sky "but like God, she didn't answer". (ePg. 277, loc. 3749) Reference to a package delivered by UPS, "not the Archangel Michael". (ePg. 279, loc. 3782) Carrigan was able to be grateful for having known Lane and recognized the enormity of God's blessing. (ePg. 284, loc. 3856) "And the peace and acceptance that had eluded me for months was delivered to me in a box from heaven." (ePg. 285, loc. 3865)

Gruesome - At the funeral one of the attendees told Laine's family how "she held the hand of a sexually abused child while the child told her mother her husband was a monster." (ePg. 241, loc. 3279)

Suspense - there are a couple of open questions (What did Jack do? Who delivered the box?) The box question is never answered but neither of these were very suspenseful.

Morality - talk about high school kids having fun at "the landing" included friends stopping a drunk guy from taking off his clothes and driving him home safely. (ePg. 79, loc. 1089) Friends encourage a friend to keep a secret from her husband. (ePg. 116) A retaliatory extra-marital affair.

Traditional - Laine reminds Carrigan that "Nobody can make you do anything. Your choices are your own." (ePg. 4, loc. 116) Carrigan encouraged Laine to have a baby, even if she wasn't married. (ePg. 66, loc. 935) Carrigan reflects, after rekindling her marriage, that she'd not just missed the sex but perhaps moreso the intimacy and the closeness. (ePg. 90, loc. 1241) This book mimics a popular childbirth scene that occurs in many books and movies about the woman screaming in anger at the husband one minute and then holding on to him for dear life in the next. (ePg. 169, loc. 2316) Ella Rae and Carrigan discuss breast feeding. (ePg. 201, loc. 2755)

One of the things I found most un-traditional is how much this friend-group "loved" each other. (ex. ePg. 217, loc. 2974) Even the husband "loved" his wife's friends (ePg. 102, loc. 1412 and ePg. 230, loc. 3146) - in a purely platonic way. I suppose it happens. I can remember being very close to one of my husband's friends. The friend, his wife and kids became like extended family to us. We'd even spend the holidays together. But I never said I "loved" them. Even the nurse said, "I have never seen so much love and support from people who weren't blood relatives." (ePg. 230, loc. 3144) And speaking of love - the OB/GYN doctor HUGGED his patient and her two friends (who are also his patients) at a regular checkup. That's a little weird and maybe even unprofessional.

Another overused phrase is "you didn't deserve this". (ex. ePg. 209, loc. 2847) For anything bad that someone experiences, someone else tells them they didn't deserve it. Not that I believe in a punishing God, but I do think sometimes tragedy or hard times are necessary in order to better appreciate the good stuff. Moreover, who is Carrigan, or anyone in this novel, to decide who does or doesn't deserve something? I got tired of reading it after a time or two.

People read for a variety of reasons. I think a lot of people read for an escape from daily life. True escapism comes in fantasy fiction like time-travel or shape-shifters. Sometimes a nice respite comes in the form of realistic fiction. Sometimes it's nice to pretend that somewhere in the world someone has a perfect life - because, in reality, nobody does. Debbie Macomber is great at writing the lives that wrap up neatly and everything works out in the end but still show people that do have flaws (afraid to risk love for being hurt) or challenges (too poor to buy their son a dog for Christmas). While I recognize that someone dies in this novel, it is still so unrealistically perfect - she gets to die with all her loved ones around her, on her terms, with virtually no pain. They live in a bubble - and they know it, and even comment on it (ref. ePg. 179, loc. 2446). Jack tells the three women they have an "unusual relationship". (ePg. 164, loc. 2248) How convenient is it that Ella Rae's husband Tommy is away "working in a Texas oilfield" (ePg. 113, loc. 1553) so she can go stay at the farm with everyone else. Until he is not away (ePg. 117, loc. 1611) and is just suddenly there at the farm with little explanation and a lot of convenience (ePg. 118, loc. 1622). Or when the job is done and he's at the farm all the time too. (ePg. 204, loc. 2786) And what happened to their regular homes while they were out at the farm for months? Did nobody have plants to water, mail to take care of, yards to be mowed? The best, most convenient news of all was when a scandal and a fling were all wrapped up in one short conversation on the side of the road. (ePg. 256, loc. 3491)

In a few other places, there is too much detail. Like when they all went to and from the hospital in various cars. (ePg. 142, loc. 1937) I'm not really sure why they had three cars at the hospital to begin with, and why it was so important who rode with whom. I kept waiting for it to matter - like why did the nurse ride with Jack instead of riding with Ella Rae and Carrigan could have ridden with her husband. But it never came into play. The same thing happened with Ella Rae's hands. Suddenly there was a lot of discussion about how rough they were - but for no obvious plot purpose.

Discussion Questions

Laine was so certain that Jack was not having an affair. (ePg. 4, loc. 116) Did that make you suspicious of her?

Carrigan thinks the job description of a best friend is to "hide the bodies and encourage the bliss". (ePg. 4, loc. 120) Should that be the role of a best friend or was Laine a better friend because she told Carrigan the truth?

Carrigan thought Jack was distance because of Lexi. (ePg. 57, loc. 821) What did you think was causing Jack to be distant?

Carrigan thinks it's "funny how you can remember certain parts of your life that made it better...or such vivid detail, no matter how young you were when the memory was made." (ePg. 7, loc. 151) What memories stand out for you?

When Carrigan is thinking about how great a small town is, because these are her people, she reflects that "black or white"..."The black ones, the white ones..." (ePg. 60, loc. 851) - why did she feel it necessary to specify the color? It seems like focusing on color would not be an attribute of the small town she is describing.

At the crawfish boil, Carrigan reveals to Charlotte, whom she only sees once a year, that she suspected Jack of cheating and that she had cheated on him. (ePg. 62, loc. 874) Does this seem like a big reveal for someone whom she only sees once a year? Was she trying to get caught? This is the same lady that noticed Laine looked tired even though Carrigan hadn't noticed. (ePg. 64, loc. 908). Why could Charlotte see it but not Carrigan?

Carrigan was "mortified" that her friends might have overheard her having sex with her husband. She reflected that she was comfortable talking about anything with her friends, except sex. It was okay for them to know "it was happening, but...[not] know details." (ePg. 114, loc. 1565) Her "version of being a lady" was she only talked about sex with the person she was having sex with. What is your level of comfort with this topic? Has your willingness to discuss the topic changed with age, or with relationship status?

Laine told Carrigan she should not confess her extramarital affair because, while it would relieve Carrigan of her guilt, it would cause Jack pain. (ePg. 116) Was this the right advice?

The friends were divided regarding Mitch Montgomery. (ePg. 133, loc. 1830) Laine believed contacting him would not change anything, and she did not want to risk messing up his life. Ella Rae did not worry about sparing Mitch's feelings. Carrigan wanted to beat him up. How did you feel about Mitch when you first learned about him?

Poppa Jack (because he knew Laine so well ;-) called her a "fighter" (ePg. 139, loc. 1892) and Carrigan was surprised, and disagreed. Why was Poppa Jack's assessment of Laine important?

All Things Pregnancy, Delivery and New Baby

Carrigan was annoyed by people that wanted to touch her stomach when she was pregnant. (ePg. 145, loc. 1985) Did people want to touch your baby belly? How did you feel about it? Carrigan, at her most pregnant, wore the same pair of overalls every day. (ePg. 154, loc. 2112) What was your favorite pregnancy outfit? When Jack asked to see the doctor in the hallway (ePg. 161, loc. 2208), was it really about anesthesia? (ePg. 163) Was it a good idea for Jack to have a back-up plan? How would you have felt if your husband had spoken privately to your doctor? When Carrigan realizes the delivery is imminent, she freaks out a bit (ePg. 162, loc. 2220) and felt suddenly unqualified to take care of a baby. What thoughts freaked you out? When? When Carrigan was in labor it was the much-overdone scene of her screaming at Jack one moment and holding on to him in the next moment. (ePg. 169, loc. 2316) Do you agree with this portrayal of the birthing experience? Why or why not? What did you think about the name Carrigan and Jack gave the baby - Ella Laine Whitfield? (ePg. 174, loc. 2387)

Carrigan felt that Laine "orchestrated everything about her death". (ePg. 216, loc. 2962) Is this a good idea, if we have the opportunity? Laine wanted to plan her own funeral. (ePg. 147, loc. 2023) Is this a good idea? Is it the right of the dying to tell the living how to grieve or how to say goodbye? Or was it Laine's way of saying goodbye? Laine said, "I don't want an open casket. People would look at me and see a shell and feel sorry for me. But I'll already be in paradise." (ePg. 199, loc. 2728) Is that fair to the people who might want to see her one more time? Many people feel seeing the body in the casket provides closure. How does a closed casket affect the grieving process? Perhaps because she planned a closed casket Laine didn't provide a picture to the funeral home of how to do her makeup. How did you feel about the scene in which Ella Rae and Carrigan discover that Laine's makeup is all wrong? (ePg. 232, loc. 3155) Did we need that much comic relief?

Carrigan said that Laine liked McDonald's fries but not their burgers and she liked Burger King burgers but not their fries. (ePg. 151, loc. 2081) What are your fast-food crazy combos? What fast-food restaurants would you like to marry together?

Laine made a choice not to treat her cancer. She "didn't want [her] last days on earth to be spent sick and bald and throwing up. [She] wanted to spend it appreciating and loving the people who had been in [her] life." (ePg. 155, loc. 2125) Laine felt peace with her decision. It's hard to know until you are in the moment, but what would you do?

Carrigan recognizes that "being on the farm was like being safely tucked away in our own little corner of the world, like being wrapped in a cocoon where nothing and no one could ever touch us." (ePg. 181, loc. 2469) Do you consider this realistic fiction or fantasy? Were they living their best life? Who had more freedom, this group of friends or the Gentleman in Moscow?

What was the point of all the commentary on Ella Rae's sandpaper hands? (ePg. 196, loc. 2678, ePg. 285, loc. 3862)

When Ricky died, Laine said it wasn't tragic because "It's not how long you live; it's what you leave behind." (ePg. 199, loc. 2720) Do you agree?

What project did you think Laine was working on in her room so often? (ePg. 200, loc. 2738)

If your single daughter, dying of cancer, had some guy (Mitch) show up out-of-the-blue, would you "accept him immediately and thank him profusely for coming" (ePg. 203, loc. 2767) or would you be a bit more skeptical? Mitch cried a lot! (ref. ePg. 195, loc. 2666, ePg. 256, loc. 3493, ePg. 209, loc. 2849) Was he a cry baby or just a super-sweet, sensitive guy?

Carrigan's grandmother said "that during thunderstorms, the heavens were opening up so the angels could come to earth and pick up a soul." (ePg. 215, loc. 2950) What tales does your family have?

Laine's passing was peaceful. "Then she took a deep breath, exhaled, and didn't breathe again." (ePg. 228, loc. 3112) Have you ever attended someone's last breath? Share if you are comfortable.

Carrigan teases Ella Rae about her "suit purse". (ePg. 232, loc. 3162) Do you or someone you know carry a big purse? When has it come in handy?

Carrigan explains that in the south, when someone dies, people would sit a vigil in a nearby church building while the body was locked inside the main church. (ePg. 245, loc. 3336) Is this a real tradition? Have you ever participated in this custom?

Carrigan realized that Laine rooted for her and Jack "because she recognized what loving someone from afar looked like". (ePg. 273, loc. 3708) The implication is that Laine loved Mitch from afar, and she recognized the same love between Jack and Carrigan. In what ways did Jack love Carrigan from afar?

Do you have any answers for Carrigan: "Why did Laine die? What possible good could come from it? Would [she] ever make peace with it?" (ePg. 274, loc. 3717) Also, reread the passage on ePg. 276, loc. 3736 that starts with "Some days,..." and ends with "question God." In the end Carrigan found that gratitude for having known Laine could replace the hurt of her loss. This was summarized in the quote from Rita Mae Brown on ePg. 282. Do you feel gratitude for those you've lost?

Were you surprised that Jack bought Laine's house? (ePg. 275, loc. 3724)

Carrigan never figured out who sent the box (ePg. 279 loc. 3785), or Elle's annual gifts. Who did you think was sending them?

In the Epilogue, Carrigan feels "sorry for couples who ...never have their limits tested." (ePg. 288, loc. 3897) Do you find value in the test or is it possible to be a good couple in a happily-ever-after world?

Theme Ideas

Serve hummingbird cake with layers, "creamy white icing and the sweet pineapple". (ePg. 2) It also includes "cream cheese frosting and the toasted pecans" (ePg. 178, loc. 2440) and "pineapple, banana, the faint taste of cinnamon". (ePg. 179, loc. 2441) Display it under a glass dome like when Carrigan came home from the hospital. (ePg. 178, loc. 2432)

Play some of the games mentioned at the crawfish boil: horseshoes, Bourre, dominoes and spades (ePg. 65, loc. 914) Play Yahtzee like Ella Rae and Carrigan sometimes stayed up all night playing because they were so competitive. (ePg. 66)

Serve mint juleps like they did at the crawfish boil. (ePg. 65, loc. 922)

Serve fried chicken and fruit like Marnie had packed for Jack & Carrigan's picnic that they never ate. (ePg. 89, loc. 1237) It is mentioned again on ePg. 113, loc. 1548, as being exceptionally good.

Serve Laine's "favorite things on earth, orange popsicles and salt water taffy". (ePg. 113, loc. 1546) Orange popsicles are mentioned again on ePg. 126, loc. 1722.

Or her second-favorite meal, "right after fried chicken", "sunny-side up eggs...with platter of bacon, sausage, grits, and biscuits." (ePg. 119, loc. 1628)

Serve "cinnamon rolls, still warm and thick with icing". (ePg. 154, loc. 2104)

Serve chips and salsa like they ate after Carrigan's last checkup. (ePg. 163, loc. 2239)