The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale

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Rarely do I just start reading a book knowing so little about it, and then to find it this surprising and compelling turned it into a 4.5 star (or 9 tissue) read.  Celeste Fletcher McHale took me on a roller-coaster of a ride with this tale of three lifelong (well, ages 5 to 30) friends in a small southern town.  What starts out as a story of a wife whose suspicions about her husband’s fidelity lead to her and her friends hiding her own indiscretion from him, turns into a tale of  love and friendship that had me laughing and crying in turns.

Quickly we get to know the three friends and identify their places within the dynamics of the friendship.  Carrigan, our narrator, is headstrong while Ella Rae is brash and Laine is the quieter, more sensitive one.

I love her [Laine], God knows I do, but she’s so…responsible.” – Carrigan to Ella Rae ( pg. 14)

Beyond this trio, Carrigan and Ella Rae’s husbands, and all of their families, there is the town of Bon Dieu Falls, Louisiana.  In flashbacks and current happenings, this very Southern small town and the various inhabitants enhance the tone of the story, serving as both backdrop and minor plot points.  The very southern-ness of this setting aids in the mood and the humor of the story.

…where we come from, your immediate daily included aunts, uncles, cousins, that one guy who came for the summer five years earlier and never left, and your crazy Great-Aunt Doris who really needed to be in a home but just continued to sit on the front porch under the watchful eye of family and neighbors.   (pg. 15)

In writing this story, McHale doesn’t shy away from including all of the poor choices and peccadilloes of the characters.  Infidelity, drinking, fighting and softball games – content that might be surprising to readers of Christian fiction, but part of what makes this novel so real and touching.  Carrigan, as a reliable and candid narrator, presents us with all of her faults and (some extremely) poor decisions.  She readily admits that, though she’s attended church from childhood, she is a Sunday morning Christian.  She also shares her questioning and struggle with faith, as we witness her growth and change through difficult circumstances.

Laine then advised me to go to God with my guilt, and release it.  I nodded in agreement, but I wasn’t interested in talking to God.  She trusted him completely, without reservation… I had nothing to say to God. (pg. 116)

This is a story about small town life in the South, where everyone know what you are up to – sometimes before you do – and a man from Mississippi is a ‘foreigner.’  It’s about friendship and devotion.  It’s about Sunday morning Christians facing life’s difficulties and those difficulties challenging even those with strong faith.  It’s about a marriage.  It’s about love, jealousy, suspicion, emotions and circumstances that get out of hand with help from alcohol, infidelity, other misguided decisions and their consequences.  But at it’s heart is a story of true friendship and devotion, with three women finding the strength to be there for each other through birth death and all the fun (and funny) bits in between.  And overall it is the story of the difficult year in which Carrigan becomes less self-centered and selfish.

Excellent story-telling combined with laid back pacing, the writing is deceptive in the best way.  Even when not much seems to really be happening, it keeps you reading to find out more. The pathos and the humor are expertly interspersed.  Just when I thought I would need to take a break, an unexpected bit of humor would have me laughing out loud.  And as someone who has been close friends with the same group of women, off and on for over 30 years, the friendship dynamics are spot on.

“Who’s the makeup artist here,the bouncer at Sugar & Spice?  That is ho red lipstick.” – Ella Rae (pg. 232)

If you like contemporary stories about internal struggles and personal growth, about marriages going through difficult times, small town life, “chick lit,” or about friendships, then give this a try.  I recommend it.  If this type of story appeals to you, but you normally would not read Christian fiction, I highly recommend that you give this a shot – it is a bit “edgy” for Christian fiction and may surprise you.

4.5/5 stars (and this from a “Yankee” – or so I was informed when briefly living in North Carolina in 1989, though I had always thought of myself as a Westerner.)


 

The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale | Thomas Nelson, February 2016 | paperback, 297 pgs with discussion questions

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Thomas Nelson and Zondervan’s Fiction Guild. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in
Advertising.”

 

Along with the book, they sent me a bookmark with a recipe for Hummingbird Cake.  Like the book, I had never heard of it until then.  I’ve made it once so far and it is delicious (similar to banana bread)!  I’ll be making it again with Laine’s secret ingredient this weekend – and posting yet another picture related to this book on Instagram.

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