Katharine Weber has a way with historical fiction. She brilliantly dramatized the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in “Triangle.” She brought us into the worlds of art history and Vermeer in “The Music Lesson.” In “The Little Women,” she took a new look at Louisa May Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth.
“True Confections” is her most delectable novel yet, a book that interweaves a history of candy, chocolate in particular, with a sweeping story of America’s immigrants, race relations and religion from before World War II to the present day.
Written in the form of an affidavit, “True Confections” is narrated by Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, a woman trying to clear her name. As a teenager, she was known as the Arson Girl after she accidentally set fire to a high school friend’s house.
Thirty-five years later, she is responsible for another fire, this one at the Zip’s Candy factory. She admits to setting this new fire -- again, accidentally -- but, of course, she didn’t mean to do any damage.
Zip’s Candy is her bread and butter, the family business into which she married. She would never do anything to hurt it. Or would she? Weber’s rambling, often funny, sometimes very sad tale is about how Alice got to where she is.
Alice reveals many things about herself and Zip’s Candy. “Dat’s Tasty!” is the company slogan, and its signature treat is a chocolate man named Little Sammy. Zip’s also makes Tigermelts and licorice Mumbo Jumbos.
Does Little Black Sambo come to mind? It should. The family’s connection to dark-skinned cacao-producing cousins in Madagascar only highlights the insidious racism. Although the factory’s sign, which featured the slogan, was taken down in 1969, Alice tries to promote both candies and slogan as retro after she becomes CEO.
“These days,” she notes, “the political incorrectness of Little Black Sambo, that huge headache in the sixties, has been trumped by the appeal of Little Sammies to nostalgic baby boomers . . . .” But she is kidding no one. There is a hilarious scene at a candy trade show about the “friendship” between the new white chocolate treat Little Susie and her darker predecessor.
Most interesting, and very deftly done, is the way Weber has layered beneath Alice’s supercilious voice her desperate desire to belong, to be loved and needed.
Alice comes to the chocolate factory in 1975 as an employee on the line, unable, because of her arson conviction, to go to college or get a better job. Surprisingly, she loves working there. She marries the boss’ son, Howdy Ziplinsky, and dreams that she finally has a home.
The Ziplinskys are wealthy, observant Jews. Alice is the only child of non-demonstrative Protestants who distanced themselves from her after the fire. Howdy’s loud, opinionated, loyal family is, at first, both a pleasure and a fascination for Alice.
“I tried so hard,” she recalls, “oh my God, for decades I tried to act like a good Jew myself. I was a parody of a good little Jewish wife, especially in those first years when I went crazy memorizing all the rules, like the thirty-nine melachot, the categories of forbidden Sabbath activities. Do you know how hard it is for someone with my background even to pronounce a word like that?”
Still, Howdy’s mother, Freida Ziplinsky, thwarts her at every opportunity. “I’m sure your chicken soup will be fine,” the older woman tells her. “You can’t expect to make such good chicken soup from scratch when it’s not in your blood.”
Alice can never truly belong in such a family, and that slow realization begins her downfall. As time passes, it is obvious that she is no longer as sweet as she first appeared. Like another famous candy, Alice develops a hard shell.
In defining the family by its Jewishness -- over and over as something other than herself -- Alice makes the Ziplinskys sound like curiosities. Racism is not the only thing bubbling under all that hot chocolate. Anti-Semitism, couched as a patronizing attempt to understand and assimilate, is a main ingredient in this novel as well.
The story wafts back and forth in time, from the 1920s to the era of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. A section about Alice’s dueling psychotherapists goes on too long. Sometimes the histories of Hershey’s and Cadbury, PEZ, Almond Joy and other candies get repetitive.
Alice’s children, her very close relationship to her father-in-law and especially the final truth of her husband’s “real life” are much more compelling. She wouldn’t be Alice if she weren’t obsessive-compulsive about the details, terrified of leaving something out and allowing us to draw our own conclusions.
Which, of course, we do. The more unreliable Alice appears, the more fascinating the story becomes. Far from being a bit of spun sugar, “True Confections” has plenty to digest. The last line is delicious.
Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.” She is an adjunct professor at Cal State Long Beach.