PASTRIES: A NOVEL OF DESSERTS AND DISCOVERIES. By Bharti Kirchner. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
Hardcover, 352 pages. $24.95.
Practically on the heels of the well-received novel Darjeeling, Seattle-based author Bharti Kirchner serves up another captivating narrative, probably her best work to date. While the title may seem light and airy, perhaps even playful, and to be sure the novel contains these elements, don’t be fooled by the cover. Within lies a tale containing elements both ephemeral and ethereal, blending successfully, to be sure.
The setting is Seattle, a place where, in Kirchner’s words, “I have lived longer than anywhere else in my life,” and that is evoked so clearly and intimately, one can sense the heart of this city without having set foot in it. This is just one of the charms of this book: setting is key.
We follow the life of Sunya Malhotra, head baker and the owner of Pastries, a popular bakery in Seattle, a warm and welcoming place where personal tastes and requests are both honored and fulfilled. For Sunya—whose life is complicated by the recent departure of her Japanese boyfriend Roger from her life, her single mother’s relationship with a man she doesn’t like, and her business threatened by the opening of a chain bakery—baking is not just a job but a vocation, a spiritual practice of sorts. Add to this deceptively simple premise the not-so-simple fact that the one true “gift” that Sunya possesses, her baking skills, are disappearing slowly but alarmingly. This is a subject that Kirchner has often pondered herself, especially since her own writing is so intuitive: “What would happen if someone suddenly lost their ‘gift,’ the very thing that defined their reason for being, their very life? How does someone recover from that? In writing Sunya’s story, I feel as though I’ve taken her through all the stages of grief and loss, which isn’t, of course, just limited to the loss of her baking skills, but to other losses in her life as well.”
One of the defining losses in Sunya’s life is that of her father, who disappeared shortly after her birth, with nary an explanation. Her mother, initially bent by grief, but not for long, supported Sunya and herself by opening a small doughnut stand. Witnessing this, Sunya learned early that life goes on after great loss and that one can rise above disappointment and waylaid plans, though a gaping hole may remain, nonetheless. This is exemplified, poignantly, in the meaning of Sunya’s name, seemingly at odds within the culture she lives in. She realizes that her cultural identity is not fixed and that it is in a very uncomfortable state of flux: “Am I really Indian? For someone who grew up in Seattle, lived with a Japanese man for a while, and bakes French and American pastries for a living, India exists only in the news, Mother’s spicy cooking, the Alfonso mangoes I buy at the grocery store, and, perhaps, the yoga sessions I infrequently attend.” Seemingly, the name defines Sunya, who wonders, “Why a name that sounded so joyless? My heart aching at the implicit rejection, I searched her moonlit face for an answer. I saw myself—an unassertive nose, steep cheekbones, dark wistful eyes that seemed darker because of their intensity, and hair as black as Puget Sound at night.”
Because the lives—indeed Sunya’s life most specifically—that unfold in the book are so well drawn and conceived, so wrought with both introspection and outer conflict, one wonders where the idea, indeed the inspiration to blend Indian and Japanese cultures came from. Kirchner laughs softly and says, “I have always, from as long as I could remember, had a fascination with Japan. About seven years ago, I was in a hotel in Japan and spent some time in a beautiful Zen garden which had a bakery. In the showcase, I was rather surprised to see French pastries. My immediate thought was ‘who is this Japanese baker?’ This seed of an idea would remain with me for quite some time. Upon my return home, I started to write my other books. The idea, germinating the entire time, came back about three years ago, and immediately I knew that the story does not start in Japan, but would have important ties to that setting.”
As in her other novels, in Pastries, Kirchner continues to explore the uneasiness of cultural and spiritual identity and enjoys weaving a narrative with the elements of two very different Asian cultures, something not often done by other writers. But what it all really comes down to, in Kirchner’s opinion, are the coping strategies we all use to get by in life, strategies that are very human and transcend identity, cultural or otherwise. She explains it this way: “The main question I asked in this novel and attempted to answer is, when you face a major problem in your life, lose the very skills that gave meaning to that life that enabled you to do what you love most, how do you get it back? But perhaps more importantly, how do you live in the meantime?”
Through thinking, feeling, and multi-dimensional characters, Kirchner shows us how to do just that.