The Golden Spoon: A Novel
Given that this novel is about a cooking competition on TV, there’s no surprise that it’s composed of mixed ingredients.
Let’s see . . . we have tropes borrowed from:
• a locked-room mystery
• a small-town cozy mystery
• a Gothic romance
• literary fiction type of luscious language
• women’s fiction type of modern angst and motivation
• contemporary fiction type of unreliable narrator(s), and focus on media and image
This buffet is presented through seven narrative voices. Six are the guest competitors on Bake Week, in separate chapters in their individual first-person voices; the seventh is the show’s host, and owner of the mansion where the show is filmed, in third-person voice. All are conveyed in present tense.
Structurally, this mix works very well. In tone, however, it leaves a sour aftertaste. More characters than not are unlikable, and act badly with little or no remorse. The two nicer ones get shunted offstage early. This leaves nobody for readers to root for, and everybody suspect. Of course, multiple suspects are standard fare in mysteries, giving plenty of red herrings to tease the reader’s brain.
Unfortunately, all of the characters seem . . . familiar . . . as if their archetypes were cherry-picked from other novels, thrown into a blender, and baked into this story. This is reflected in the jacket blurb and review quote: “Only Murders in the Building meets The Maid. . . . perfect for fans of Nita Prose, Richard Osman, and Anthony Horowitz.” And: “It’s Knives Out meets Agatha Christie.”
Yep—a little bit of all of those. Which will work for some readers and not for others. Some mystery fans will enjoy the creative mélange, character complexity, and clever sabotaging and killing, but those who are more interested in plot—the whodunit itself—will find themselves drumming their fingers wishing things would trot along faster. They might find the characters boringly insecure and egocentric, because their issues and backstories don’t give persuasive motive for the crimes that are committed, and how.
Likewise, readers interested in baking will salivate over the culinary sections, whereas non-foodie readers will skip those with a yawn.
The ending, at least, may satisfy both reader types, in that part of it is predictable and part of it is a surprise.
Another element that doesn’t quite cut it is the Vermont setting. This doesn’t really matter because most of the action takes place indoors. Outdoors, the mansion could be located in any rural northern area with hills and trees. Readers who live in Vermont, who may be drawn to the story especially because of setting, may wonder why is there a splendid mansion in the middle of nowhere, in a state with limited history of the kind of prosperity that would allow such an embodiment of wealth. Anomalies like this building exist around the state, but a smidge of backstory placing it in uniquely Vermont context would help with plausibility and atmosphere.
On the writing side, the author makes many original and effective word choices. Nothing extravagant, just phrases like “the driver huffed my bags onto a trolly” and “a grand staircase that rises like a mahogany waterfall”; along with some profundities about aging, such as: “It’s a blessing and curse, I suppose, to not feel my seventy-two years. Back when I was young, I remember thinking older people were practically a different species. Now I realize we are always the same inside, it’s just the packaging that changes.”
Plus: “Much like herself, an older building must be maintained in order to function properly. There is always something that needs looking into, repairs both small and large to contend with. Along with the aesthetic work—it was unending—there was always a room that needed painting, a floor refinishing. She couldn’t hope to keep up without the money from the studio. Aging is not for the weak. Or the poor.”
Where the book succeeds, perhaps, is compelling reader sympathy for unsympathetic characters. Where it fails, perhaps, is persuading readers who are experienced in locked-room mysteries that it’s a worthy entrant into the subgenre. Referring again to the publisher’s packaging, the book is “in development as a limited series at Hulu.”
Ah, there’s an idea. With good cinematography, strong actors, and careful use of flashbacks, that might be the better medium to convey this novel’s impact.