Pop Lit

Not all sweetness - or light

By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / January 10, 2010

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Katharine Weber’s marvelous novel about candy is a reminder, if we need one, that people and things we take for granted may have extraordinarily complicated, amazing histories. Randy Susan Meyers’s sensitive story about the legacy of domestic violence is painful to read at times, but unforgettable. And Barbara Delinsky proves once again a perceptive observer of family relations, delivering a tautly emotional story about mothers and daughters tested by a teenage pregnancy pact.

Besides being a vividly imagined story about love, obsession, and betrayal, Weber’s “True Confections” is a lively pocket history of the American candy industry. It’s an irresistible combination. Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky’s story takes the form of a legal affidavit in a battle for control of a business, a first-person account of her 33 years at Zip’s Candies, a family-run, New Haven candy factory, as well as her own version of the firm’s history.

Zip’s Candies was founded in 1924 by Eli Czaplinsky, a Hungarian immigrant, with, family legend has it, money he may have stolen from New York’s Jewish mafia.

The names of Eli’s candy bar creations, Little Sammies, Tigermelts, and Mumbo Jumbos were inspired by a library book, “Little Black Sambo,” which Eli used to teach himself English. Zip’s candies have thrived, even with their politically incorrect names. But now the company is rent by internecine struggles. Company president Sam Ziplinsky, Alice’s father-in-law and mentor, has died. His son and heir, Howard “Howdy” Ziplinsky, Alice’s husband and Yale fraternity brother of George W. Bush, has gone off to live his “real life” in Madagascar. Howard’s sister Irene wants to sell Zip’s and is suing Alice who, with her two children, owns a controlling interest in the company.

Alice came to work at Zip’s after high school, following an unfortunate incident in which she burned down her best friend’s home. Branded “Arson Girl” in the media, her early acceptance to Middlebury rescinded, she had to find work. “A certain burnt sugar and chocolate aroma hung in the air,” she writes of her first day on the job, “that marvelous, inevitable, ineffable, just-right aura of Zip’s Candies . . . I have loved that smell every day of my life from then to now.”

Alice is a passionate narrator, minutely observant, given to irony, and perhaps not entirely reliable. But after many years of psychoanalysis, she is determined to tell the truth as she sees it. It’s a story that ranges from pre-war Budapest, to Madagascar, where the Third Reich wanted to establish a colony of European Jews, to the All Candy Expo in Chicago where Alice makes a regrettable decision involving white chocolate.

Randy Susan Meyers delivers a clear-eyed, insightful story about domestic violence and survivor’s guilt in “The Murderer’s Daughters.” It’s an impressively executed novel, disturbing and convincing. One stifling July day Lulu, just 10, disobeys her mother and allows her alcoholic father into their apartment. Moments later she finds her mother stabbed to death, her 6-year-old sister, Merry, badly wounded and her father with his wrists slashed, but alive. The father is sent to prison, and the children go to relatives, who don’t want them, then to an orphanage, then to a foster family, a well-meaning couple incapable of handling the girls’ emotional problems.

Through the years Lulu and Merry cope in different ways. Lulu tries to forget the past, becomes a doctor, a wife, a mother. She ignores her father’s letters, pretends he’s dead. Merry becomes a victim witness advocate, a job that has her reliving her own trauma. She tries to lose herself in sex and alcohol. She reads her father’s letters and visits him in prison. Though they react in different ways to their father, both daughters are haunted by him and dread the day he’s paroled. After a crisis threatens Lulu’s children, the sisters are at last able to confront the past.

In Barbara Delinsky’s “Not My Daughter,” three high school juniors make a pact to become pregnant. The resulting shock waves spread through the community.

Susan Tate is the principal of a high school in the coastal Maine town of Zaganack. Susan can’t believe her daughter, Lily, has deliberately made the same mistake she made at 17. Back then, Susan’s father, mayor of a small Oklahoma town, disowned her. No one in her family has spoken to her since. She struggled to raise Lily alone while educating herself and pursuing a teaching career. She has tried to be a good mother, instilling sound values in Lily.

Lily, with Mary Kate and Jess, are at the top of their class, popular girls who have never caused trouble. What happened? Some Zaganack residents, including school board members, blame Susan. After all, she’s a single mother with liberal notions. She established a medical clinic at the school, where students can obtain birth control. She prefers counseling students to punishing them. Susan has to fight to keep her job.

There are other story lines, including Susan’s relationship with her own mother and her continuing romance with Lily’s father. Delinsky ties up all the loose plot ends, but the deeper psychological reasons that prompted Lily and her friends to become pregnant remain unexplored.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

By Katharine Weber
Shaye Areheart, 288 pp., $22

By Randy Susan Meyers
St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $24.99

By Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday, 352 pp., $24.95