Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, the antiheroine and narrator of Katharine Weber's wickedly funny new novel, True Confections, has a voice so incisive and tart that as soon as I finished reading the book I started at the beginning and read the entire thing over again. I savored it even more the second time.
This sly, engrossing narrative consists of Alice's 287-page affidavit responding to an unspecified lawsuit. Against the advice of her lawyer, Alice uses the deposition as an opportunity to tell her life story, which is also the story of the Ziplinsky family of New Haven, Conn., and their eponymous 84-year-old candy company, where she has worked for more than three decades. As the intertwined story lines unfold, the details of Alice's putative crimes gradually emerge.
Alice seems to attract trouble. In 1975, when she is 18, she burns down the home of a high school classmate. She describes the conflagration as a grotesque accident. Was it? As with everything Alice asserts, you'll have to read carefully and make up your own mind. Her admission to college rescinded, Alice takes a job at the Ziplinsky candy factory, and soon thereafter marries Howdy Ziplinsky, the feckless son of its cigar-chomping owner. From her first whiff of chocolate, working amid the "sweet mechanical ballet" of the factory, this articulate and tenacious young woman understands she's found her rightful place.
Although Alice's hostile and theatrical mother-in-law dismisses her as a "dumb goy," nothing could be further from the truth. Insecure, ambitious and shrewd, Alice has more in common with the company's hungry immigrant founders than their pampered heirs.
Weber has done her homework, and Alice's obsessive ardor for the candy industry yields fascinating and eloquent miniature essays on everything from the history of the Hershey bar, to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ("this tasteless, horrible book feels to me much more like covert S and M pornography than children's literature") and the erotic appeal of cacao: "true chocolate has a melt temperature that is almost the same as our body temperature. This I believe, is one of the reasons we love chocolate so much — it loves us back." Alice is a remarkable creation, a witty, engaging and thoroughly unreliable narrator who inspires amusement, pity and the occasional twinge of fear.
But while Weber grounds the novel in Alice's experience, it's bigger than that. The narrative delves lovingly into the history of a venerable immigrant industry, and brings to mind the elegiac mid-career novels of Philip Roth. Unlike Roth, however, Weber manages to celebrate the past without ever lapsing into sentimentality. Crisp and delicious, her novel is a true confection indeed.