Can Christmas transform your life in the most magical and transformative of ways?
We all like to think so; there’s something about this most wonderful of seasons that makes most of us believe that it is somehow set up from the humdrum, pell-mell banality of life and thus is capable of great and amazing things that would defy the best attempts of January through to November.
One person not entirely convinced of this, however, is Rachel Smithson, the protagonist of Jenny Oliver’s luminously escapist novel The Parisian Bake Off, a kindergarten teacher in the wholesomely lovely, tightknit English village of Nettleton who regards Christmas as a time that takes away rather than gives, owing almost completely to the fact that that is when she and her dad, both of them still grieving in their own ways, lost her mother and his wife respectively.
It’s not an easy time of the year for them, and so when all the villagers secretly club together – even the kindergarteners are in on it, including Thomas, a once-orphaned, now adopted kid who adores his teacher – to send Rachel to Paris to compete in an elite competition to become the next pastry chef apprentice of famed onetime culinary wunderkind Henri Salernes, over Christmas no less, the reluctant to engage out of her rut with life teacher is not too certain she should go.
She goes to refuse the very well-intentioned, loving offer from people who have known her all her life, but the disappointment on everyone’s faces when it looks like she’s going to turn them down, is enough to convince her to give it a shot, even though she is convinced it will amount to precisely and absolutely nothing.
“”‘Look, thanks, everyone, it’s really sweet of you, but I can’t go to Paris. And I certainly can’t bake for Henri Salernes. I’m nowhere near good enough. And, Jackie, no one’s going to be living in my flat.’ Rachel thought of all her things just the way she liked them being picked up and broken by a couple of Australian strangers. She though of her usual Christmas Day hiding out with the six-hour Pride and Prejudice DVD. She thought of the endurance test that went with avoiding the carol concerts, the presents, the festive cheer. Of locking out thoughts and memories of family Christmases that were just too achingly familiar to remember. ‘I just—there’s no way I’m going. I have loads to do here. I can’t. Absolutely no way …'” (P. 19)
No butterflies in the stomach festive transformations for her, thank you very much Santa.
She will go to Paris, compete for the coveted spot as Henri’s next croissant-wrangling, petits fours-conjuring, soufflé-levitating heir apparent and when she is not successful, as she surely will not be, she will return home to her beloved village, to the teaching career she likes but doesn’t love and to her commitment phobic “boyfriend” Ben and resume life as if she never stepped away from it.
But The Parisian Bake Off is a novel soaked to within an inch of its Armagnac life in escapist Christmas possibilities and you know, even if Rachel doesn’t, that she won’t leave Paris the same person she entered it.
How could she?
Novels as confectedly wonderful as The Parisian Bake Off are never content with the status quo which must be, in ways sweet, delightful and dreamily wonderful, upended to such a degree that everything the person in the spotlight never knew they needed or wanted come true, in dazzlingly magical fashion.
What makes The Parisian Bake Off such a supreme delight, all its festive romantic comedy cliches and tropes notwithstanding, is that it manages to take you completely into its story even though you know from the get-go where it is all going to end up.
That says a lot of Oliver’s writing, which takes an easy-to-predict narrative and invests it with a real understanding of grief’s enervating effects, vivacious characters who you give a damn about – the entire village is full of people you want to embrace and get to know and be in constant contact with; time for a stint on Escape to the Country perhaps? – and a thrilling sense that everything good and perfect is meandering up the snow-covered streets of Paris, brightly lit Eiffel Tower and all, just waiting to fold itself around Rachel just when she needs it the most.
That includes handsome Philippe who, it turns out, is exactly what his irascible brother Henri is not (though of course even the hard-as-nails chef is a lot more vulnerable and supportive than he lets on), the warmhearted, caring Chantal, the servant to Ms. Charles, the woman whose small servant flat is Rachel’s temporary home, and Abby, a fellow contestant who becomes a firm, if flawed, friend.
All these people, and Paris itself, come alive in the effervescent surrounds of The Parisian Bake Off which, while it may not strike any new ground plot-wise, does a superb job of reinvigorating its constituent parts in such an appealing way that you can’t help but get invested in where Rachel’s life is heading and who it is heading there with.
“Rachel was on fire. She didn’t look up from her worktop once. Her fingers were dancing over ingredients. Slices of figs dusted with white snow sugar sat on squares of honey-infused filo with brandy syrup and a mascarpone cream. She made cubes of chocolate and pistachio sponge so light they dissolved on the tongue, with a coating of coffee caramel and a layer of chocolate ganache with a shine like a mirror and shaving of gold leaf that fluttered as she moved from one delicacy to the next.” (PP. 181-182)
Much of its appeal lies in the idea that the kind of change that takes Rachel by the hand and won’t let her go, isn’t just possible but entirely and life-changingly necessary.
We all look at our own life from time to time and think this or that could be better or richer or fuller, but the truth of the matter is that we rarely do anything about it, not so much out of a fear of change, though that likely plays a role but because all the upheaval and bother of change might not be worth the payoff.
Certainly Rachel thinks that more than once in her cold, airy alcove after another bruising encounter in Henri’s Hunger Games-style kitchen, and left to her own devices, at least at first, she might simply have given into ennui and headed back to Nettleton, unaware of the great change that awaits her if only she sticks around.
But stick around she does because what is an escapist novel like The Parisian Bake Off if the protagonist simply chooses the what-is over the what-could-be, and as we watch Rachel re-discover her gift for sublimely wondrous baking, her passion for real romantic connection with someone special, and her love for her fellow lifelong villagers, we marvel again at the idea that not only is change possible but that it can be delightful even with all the disruption it entails.
Sure, life is never this neatly sewn together but who wants that in a beautiful piece of kick reality to the kerb festive storytelling which comes with just enough hard scrabble, emotionally resonant humanity to make it feel real and accessible enough such that the fairytale aspect of proceedings feels entirely and gorgeously possible, the very manifestation of what we hope for from a season which sparkles with all the possibility, romantic or otherwise, in the world.