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How to Bake a Perfect Life    by Barbara O'Neal order for
How to Bake a Perfect Life
by Barbara O'Neal
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2010 (2010)
Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Barbara O'Neal hits all the right notes - and her light, nurturing novel emits all the right scents (baking bread and growing flowers) in How to Bake a Perfect Life. Along the way, she explores permutations and combinations of mother/daughter relationships through several generations. Her engaging story is interspersed with breadmaking recipes and tips, mainly for making sourdough breads and feeding mother dough (sourdough starters), but including such tasty treats as Easy Pain au Chocolat.

Forty-year-old Ramona Gallagher is the single mother (as a pregnant teenager she made the tough decision to raise her baby) of her beloved Sofia. Though she lives in the same town, Colorado Springs, as her large, extended family, there has been a rift between Ramona and her kin since they refused to fire her philandering ex-husband and she left the family business to start her own bakery in the home she inherited from her grandmother Adelaide. Sofia is married to Oscar, a professional soldier deployed in Afghanistan, and is seven months pregnant. Oscar's ex-wife is a jailed meth addict, and Sofia wants her thirteen-year-old step-daughter Katie to come and stay with them. The tale is told in all three voices.

The tension builds with a call from the military to inform Sofia that Oscar has been very badly burned. Of course, she flies to Germany right away, leaving her mother to welcome Katie into her home. When Katie arrives, she begs for Ramona to arrange to ship the dog, Merlin, who adopted her from El Paso. On top of this, Ramona's bakery is struggling and her business mentor is her father's mortal enemy. As we turn pages, we learn Ramona's back story. Her mother Lily sent her to live with her aunt Poppy during her teen pregnancy and fought hard to convince her to give up her baby for adoption, something Ramona still resents. And Lily and Poppy had issues with their own mother, Adelaide.

But Ramona's life begins looking up when Jonah shows up in her neighborhood - she was attracted to him, as a pregnant fifteen-year-old, when he was the only one other than her aunt who was kind to her. A relationship grows between them, balancing her business problems, the challenges that Katie sometimes presents, and her huge worry over Oscar's survival and Sofia's pregnancy. Though How to Bake a Perfect Life is not a particularly deep novel, it's beautifully written and as satisfying to ingest as fresh-baked sourdough bread. If you're looking for a feel good, romantic story of mothers and daughters over the holidays, this is the perfect choice - and it might just inspire you to start kneading and baking too!

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