Stepping into the pages of a novel – Judith Fertig

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By Judith Fertig

If you’ve ever had the experience of stepping into the pages of a novel you love — in real life — then you know how wonder-full it can be.♥

When I was growing up in the American Midwest, I became enchanted with The Little White Horse, a novel by Elizabeth Goudge. (As it turns out, this was also the favorite childhood novel of J. K. Rowling.)

Years later, I spent part of my junior year at the University of Exeter in Devon. While there, I was determined to find the actual setting of The Little White Horse. I got close, but couldn’t find it.

Flash forward. I was married with two school-age children, again in the Midwest, and my husband was transferred to London for work, so we moved to a flat in Maida Vale. Elizabeth Goudge had written an autobiography that I pounced upon. And there, tah-dah!, was the answer. I packed up my kids, drove to Devon, and found the famous well where the Moon Princess hid her pearls at Compton Castle (a.k.a. Combe Magna in the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility) just west of Torquay.

I was thrilled to solve my own mystery, and I also appreciated how Goudge worked with what she had — the area where she lived during World War II — to create lasting magic for her readers. I then wrote a story about that experience for Country Homes & Interiors Magazine. And eventually went back to life in the Midwest.

But all the while, an idea was percolating.

While in London, I had gone to culinary school at The Cordon Bleu and at La Varenne in Paris. I focused my writing on food and lifestyle and wrote many cookbooks during the ensuing years.

But where, I wondered, could flavor take you? Like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and his wizard wand, could a flavor transport you? Or tell you a story? Could it help you solve your own mystery? Or someone else’s?

So, I wrote a novel with a character who can do just that. In The Cake Therapist, Claire “Neely” O’Neil is a talented pastry chef who leaves New York City for a small town in the Midwest to open her own pastry shop. Through the flavors in her bakery goods — dark chocolate and coffee to get you going in January, raspberry and blood orange to stir passion in February, etc. — she tries to give everyone the flavor they need to get on with their lives. She knows that flavor, like music or scent, is a hyperlink to a feeling. And a feeling is at the heart of every person’s story.

Neely also uses this intuition to create signature wedding cakes with flavors that fit a bride’s inner self like a couture gown. She also uses flavor guidance to solve a mystery that has haunted a family since World War II.

My own Ohio hometown, which has transformed its 19th century blue-collar self into a bridal district, was the inspiration.

The Memory of Lemon, the sequel to The Cake Therapist, continues Neely’s story. Her father, a now-homeless veteran from the war in Vietnam, wants to come home. But he can’t until he faces what really happened to him, an event that his own mother foresaw. On top of that, she has a new man in her life, but is finding it difficult to part with her husband, he of the wandering eye. And she has a wedding that could spell disaster if she doesn’t get it right: A society mother battles with her folksinger daughter who wants to marry in a cabin and have wedding pie.

Neely’s flavor Wi-Fi does not seem to work until the wedding team travels to a bucolic Kentucky town on the Ohio River. Here, Neely begins to taste an intriguing combination of citrus and spice, which prompts flashbacks from 19th century Ireland, John James Audubon’s time in the Ohio wilderness, and an herb woman in a Kentucky cabin. A parade of Wanderers and Healers drift in on fleeting flavor to bring a family together, help Neely find love again, and perhaps guide her father home once again.

For this novel, I drew inspiration from Augusta, Kentucky, where my family had a weekend home. I went back two years ago and stayed in a hand-hewn log cabin to get a feel for what it feels like. I could see the marks of someone’s ax and a fingerprint in the chinking from someone long ago, which was another thrilling discovery.

Augusta is even more charming than what I had remembered. The river still changes color with the season and the sun. Augusta is one of those places where you truly feel that you’ve stepped back in time. (It’s also where George Clooney grew up; He and Amal last visited in June 2015.)

Judith Fertig writes fiction and cookbooks from her Kansas City home. She is happy for readers to contact her if they’ve purchased either The Memory of Lemon or The Cake Therapist and to send them a downloadable booklet of recipes perfect for a book club — to make their own memories of lemon!

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