By Katharine Weber
Shaye Areheart Books, 288 pages, $22.00.
Look online, and you’ll see a Web site for Zip’s Candies, complete with an online order form for their three varieties of confections. Katharine Weber’s new novel, “True Confections,” is about a candy company, Zip’s Candies, and the lives and loves of the Ziplinsky family, who manufacture these delectable sweets.
After her previous novel, “Triangle,” came out, Weber received numerous e-mails from a variety of people with .edu e-mail addresses, asking for the transcript of the interview with the character who survived the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, she told the Forward in a recent phone interview. These earnest academics did not seem to recognize the difference between history and historical fiction, so Weber decided to play with that distinction in this novel, whose scope extends from an early 20th-century candy factory producing sweets by means of a Rube Goldberg-like mechanical apparatus to a plot line hinging on the all-consuming and all-important opinions of the 21st-century candy bloggers.
Weber is, despite her Episcopalian heritage, one of America’s finest writers on Jewish themes. She is three-quarters Jewish, yet her maternal grandmother disqualifies her as a Jew according to many strands of Jewish law. Weber uses the notion of ambiguous identity to write in a textured and thoughtful way about the nature of identity and family.
“True Confections” is written in the form of an affidavit of Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky to a court deciding how the will of her former father-in-law, Samuel Ziplinsky, should be interpreted. The future of the company depends on which children are heirs and how much of the company Alice is entitled to. As the reader comes to learn, Alice is not an entirely reliable narrator. In the hands of a lesser talent, this device would be tiring; in Weber’s hands, as in “Triangle,” it forms a clever puzzle that the reader must first notice and then solve from the clues at hand.
Alice, born to cold WASP parents, takes a summer job at Zip’s Candies and never leaves. She marries into this Jewish family and wants to be accepted into it. Her mother-in-law, nicknamed “Three-Freezer Frieda” by her son, for the meat, dairy and Passover freezers she uses to store food she has cooked, gives her recipes but makes sure that Alice won’t replicate them properly. Alice, who never converts to Judaism, wants to belong to this family as much as her spouse, Howard “Howdy” Ziplinsky, wants to live with the other branch of the family, in Madagascar.
Blending history with her own fictional Ziplinskys, Weber takes the Madagascar plan promulgated by the Third Reich and imagines how a Jew might have responded to it. This early answer to the Jewish question, first proposed by 19th-century antisemites, was to resettle Jews on the island of Madagascar, off Africa. In Weber’s hands, this historical proposal was something a Czaplinsky (as their name was spelled in Europe) brother discovered, and following this he decided to form the vanguard — to beat other Jews to Madagascar. Conveniently, this is a place where high-quality cocoa is grown, and when the American Ziplinskys need a supplier, a connection is re-forged between the families.
But Alice’s yearning to be part of a different family and shift her identity is only one aspect of this novel. The story at the heart of the novel’s identity confusion is that of Abu Nkongo, a Cameroonian man found in Paris by Alice’s sister-in-law Irene. Abu tells of the miserable lives of child laborers on cocoa plantations. Irene is a “real Ziplinsky, her entitlement to her own indifference, the privilege of not noticing her own privilege.” From her privileged position, and her guilt as a beneficiary of the hard labor of others, she takes Abu on a speaking tour of America to raise money for child laborers in Africa. Abu turns out not to be all that he says he is, though his stories of hardships are true.
Yet, there is a remedy for the racism, not only in the cocoa, but also at the heart of Zip’s Candies. All the brands are named for aspects of the children’s book “Little Black Sambo,” which (despite a lovely modern retelling by Jewish African-American author Julius Lester) remains an offensive tome. Alice figures out a way to keep the sense of loyalty key to the candy consumer, and at the same time she innovates enough to create a candy she would be proud to send to our current mixed-race president. It is a clever solution that ends up giving the narrator a sense of belonging that she has craved throughout her telling of her tale.
The writer Barbara Kingsolver has said that the first paragraph of a novel should make a promise that the rest of the book can keep. Weber’s first sentence brings the reader directly into her fictional world, in all its mechanized specificity: “On my first day of work at Zip’s Candies, it took five minutes for me to learn the two-handed method for separating and straightening the Tigermelts as they were extruded eight at a time onto the belt that carried them toward the finishing chocolate-striping applicator tunnel.” If you are curious about these candies, how they are made and who makes them, do not expect to find literal truth from the narrator’s account. Whether you ever consume a piece of Zip’s Candies or not, Weber’s new novel is a delectable addition to any reading menu.
Read Beth Kisseliff’s Q & A with Katharine Weber here
Beth Kissileff is the author of a forthcoming novel, “Questioning Return.” She has taught at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota and Mount Holyoke College.