Title: The Cake House
Author: Latifah Salom
Rating: 3.5 stars
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
The Cake House flummoxed me a bit. A lot about this debut novel is daring and striking. If I were to choose a rating based on writing alone, it would easily be a four star book, or even higher. But there were definitely things about it that gave me pause.
After a shocking moment of violence when Rosaura Douglas’s father shoots himself–or so, at least, it seems–she and her mother begin a new life with a secretive stepfather and his compelling son. Rosaura frequently sees visions of her father’s ghost, while she tries to unravel the secrets of her new family.
The Cake House is billed as a modern reimagining of Hamlet. I’m not overly familiar with Hamlet, but beyond the initial conceit (father’s ghost seeking revenge against remarried wife and new spouse, etc.), I didn’t really see the connection. So I would recommend getting that right out of your head, because I think this is a book that stands better on its own without freaking Shakespeare hanging over it (I wonder how unnerving that must be for an author).
The writing is gorgeous, and really evocative. I saw the entire book like a film in my head, down to the lighting and cinematography. While reading, I kept wanting to listen to Lana del Rey, something dark and throaty that still called to mind California sunshine bright enough to give you migraines. It definitely put me in a specific mood, and I love when a book is able to do that.
Some of the best scenes are in the beginning, as Rosaura goes a bit mad and feral in response to her father’s death, and then as she begins a charged relationship with her new stepbrother.
But as the plot wore on, missteps began to happen. Huge secrets were built up and up, and there was lots of tension, but it basically boiled down to a Ponzi scheme. There were consequences of Claude’s secret life, yes, but where was the big implosion I was looking for? It just sort of fizzled at the end, leaving me rather bored. And oddly, though I did not at all want this to be a “supernatural” novel, I wanted to see a lot more of the ghost. There was so much tension, so much of an edge, whenever he was around, that the rest of the novel kind of lacked.
There were also some very frank sexual encounters between young teenagers (like, fourteen), which I found really uncomfortable. They were designed to be uncomfortable, but I really could have done without them. Reader tolerance will vary, but I really don’t want onscreen (or offscreen, for that matter) sex when characters are that young.
Still, for a debut, The Cake House is pretty great. Salom is definitely an author to watch.