Whoppers, the chocolate-coated malted-milk balls that melt in your mouth, were not always the diminutive delectable they are today, but were rather two-for-a-penny gobstoppers - real cavity fillers, you might say.
Well, there are Whoppers and there are whoppers, as we know, and the one at the heart of True Confections, the frank, funny, comfortably outrageous fifth novel from American writer Katharine Weber, is a bit of a gobsmacker itself - though not nearly enough to derail narrator Alice Tatnall from her self-appointed task of … well, it remains to be seen what Alice's task really is.
"I take peculiar solace in finding myself part of a great American tradition of troubled candy families," Alice writes. The words you want to take note of here are "peculiar" and "troubled."
Ostensibly a twin history, Alice's narrative purports to tell the story both of her 33-year involvement with the Ziplinskys, the door-slammingly disputatious Jewish family who took her in when society turned her aside, and of Zip's Candies, the fictional New Haven company whose founder built its fortune on "the touchingly naive if hugely misguided inspiration of Little Black Sambo for his three candy lines": Tigermelts, Little Sammies and Mumbo Jumbos.
It's also written in the form of an affidavit, so we know something is afoot.
Alice was just 18 when she walked into the candy factory 30 years before, a somewhat hapless though not unsympathetic figure - a refugee, for reasons unclear, from her buttoned-down WASP family on the other side of town. Within moments, she has met her fate and future husband in the form of Howard, the favoured son, 10 years her senior and as sweet to her eyes as anything coming off the Ziplinsky conveyor belt.
Then, too, there's the matter of the fire she set - oh, accidentally! - as a girl
Universally, if regrettably, known as Howdy, he's the gleam in his mother's eye and the putative heir to the business, though it turns out he has other plans. Alice, with her "pale, prim, politely Episcopal" heritage, pours her all into becoming a model Jewish wife and mother, an effort largely successful though unappreciated, particularly by her female in-laws.
As Alice wends her way through this cultural and corporate history, we acquire some tasty morsels of confectionery trivia - did you know that Hershey's suspended production of their trademark Kisses during the Second World War because they couldn't get foil to wrap them? - as well as a glimpse into the abortive Nazi plan to "resettle" Europe's Jews on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar. We also acquire intimations that Alice may not be what she seems.
"I have always been very responsible for children in my care," she writes halfway through the book. "But my altruism can be misunderstood, whether it takes the form of serving perfectly wholesome beef stew to a malnourished" - and vegan - "little second grader friend of Jacob's … or giving a much-needed haircut to a kindergarten classmate of Julie's. … I have no idea why her silly mother cried like that. It was just hair."
Then, too, there's the matter of the fire she set - oh, accidentally! - as a girl: Who was to know the water pistol was filled with lighter fluid? Or that her friend's house would be consumed by flames and she, Alice, charged with arson? Things do begin to take on a different cast … in fact, it becomes clear that Alice follows in the fine tradition of not-to-be-trusted tale-tellers (exemplified by the diabolically deranged narrator of John Lanchester's hilarious The Debt to Pleasure), and that the version of herself she's presenting may be just a tiny bit sugar-coated.
By the time Alice gets through everything that fate (read: Howard) has in store for her, she's tempered like chocolate, with a tough shiny gloss - a kind of latter-day Ann Landers, hard-headed and no-nonsense, a pragmatic businesswoman with no time for the "bean-to-bar obsessives" who fetishize dark chocolate or for the "organic shmorganic" rigmarole that so consumes the purists. "We source the best ingredients we can, for the right price. Zip's Candies is a business. We are not the UN."
She's shrewd and smart, which is why, she maintains, her beloved father-in-law Sam left her a controlling share in the business, and why she's determined to see it flourish. And if that means dragging Zip's Candies kicking and screaming into the 21st century ("It's time to put Little Sammies on the shelf next to Amos 'n' Andy and Al Jolson in blackface"), or destroying corporate files she deems incriminating, so be it. "I have burned all the documents, the real ones and the ones I made up. Trust me, don't trust me. Either way, they're all gone now."
It may not make for the world's most reliable narrator, but it certainly makes for a good read.
"I'm sorry about the Little Sammies I put in the gas tank of Howard's ridiculous Porsche Boxster," a contrite Alice writes near the end of the novel. "Also, I shouldn't have put Howard's Patek Philippe watch in the Cuisinart. I was frustrated, but it was wrong."
In the words of another long-standing and sizable American institution, you're a riot, Alice.
Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto-based writer and editor, regularly reviews books for The Globe and Mail.