“She tells me in India people consider movies . . . glorified Technicolor dreams, a means of uplifting themselves . . . a comforting escape from the everyday routine.”
Thus Sunya Malhotra, the protagonist in “Pastries,” shares her Indian mother’s observation on the power and magic of cinema. “Pastries,” Bharti Kirchner’s first-person novel, is witty, sensitive, and not overwhelmingly profound, much like popular Indian cinema. This is Kirchner’s fourth novel and her eighth book (the first four were cookbooks). Born in India, Kirchner worked as a systems software engineer before shifting gears into writing.
Kirchner leaps into the plot from Page One and defines her characters’ identities in clear-cut good-guy-versus-bad-guy style. The good guy in this case is Sunya, a 29-year-old owner cum baker of the Pastries Cafe near downtown Seattle. Her signature Sunya Cake has endeared itself to the sweet- toothed local populace. The bad guy is Willy Cartdale, owner of the chain Cakes Plus, who intends to open a branch in the neighborhood and gobble up Pastries.
Twenty-nine is a good age for a protagonist, for by then one has accumulated a body of experiences that encourage reflection without having completely lost the sense of possibility that comes with youth. Sunya, so named by her father after the Sanskrit word sunyatta (meaning “void”), is the quintessential modern, single woman — fiercely independent, passionate about her career, affectionate and still searching for love, having recently broken up with her Japanese boyfriend, Roger Yahura. Sunya’s Cakes Plus-related problems are compounded when she feels that she is losing her baker’s touch. An opportunity to study in a unique baking school in Japan changes her perspective.
The first-person voice offers some definite advantages to the author: There is never any doubt about the tilt of perspective. Yet the writer must also contend with the difficultly of presenting a bird’s-eye view, a bonus of the third-person voice. In that regard, Kirchner has acquitted herself honorably. By the end of “Pastries” one does root for Sunya, yet Kirchner has graciously exposed her flaws and ensured that other characters are just as vibrant as she is.
Yet there are times when Kirchner’s enthusiasm wavers and one discerns a desire to complicate the plot unnecessarily. When Andrew (Sunya’s new love interest) narrates his screenplay to Sunya, for example, it’s distracting.
Sunya seems to be free of immigrant baggage. Her biggest sorrow and enigma is her father’s abandonment of her mother, Deepika, soon after her birth. Deepika’s experiences are poignantly shared.
Kirchner’s background as a cookbook author comes in handy, and she gives us a glimpse into the stress-filled lives of bakers, who seem much like theater actors, hoping to imprison fleeting perfection each day. Besides her energetic homage to baking, Kirchner displays an affectionate regard for Japan and its people. Many of her fleshed-out characters are Japanese.
Kirchner deftly weaves an intricate tangle and then gradually unties the knots toward the end, much like a Bollywood blockbuster. The language is elegant, easy and rhythmic, and Kirchner focuses her attention on each individual’s personal quest. One warms up to Deepika, who speaks English peppered with Bengali and charms with her spirited fight to retain her doughnut shop. But some of Kirchner’s characters, such as food columnist Donald J. Smith, Pierre the head baker and Roger, are little more than caricatures, their sketchiness offsetting the introspection of the favored few.
Issues like globalization are mentioned, but there is a certain ambivalence in their treatment. Loose ends like the behavior of Jill (one of Sunya’s staff member), her connection to Andrew and Kirchner’s curious choice of a very North Indian last name for a Bengali character (Prabhu Malhotra, Sunya’s Buddhist father) are a bit bothersome.
A writer’s success depends on playing hide-and-seek with readers’ intuitions and then granting the anticipated insight. Does Sunya manage to outwit Cartdale? Does she find love and her father? As Sunya says, “Secrecy is still the most alluring spice.”