I don’t usually reach for contemporary novels; I’m more of a historical fiction girl myself. There are times, however, a contemporary novel pleasantly surprises me with its heart and characters. The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale is that kind of novel. It’s a story that made me laugh and cry, and that’s not easy to do.
The Plot – The Secret to Hummingbird Cake
Set in Bon Dieu Falls, Louisiana, The Secret to Hummingbird Cake follows three lifelong friends, Carrigan, Ella Rae, and Laine. The core of the book is the united relationship between these women. Carrigan is afraid her husband Jack is having an affair and is filled with guilt from her own indiscretion (phone calls only), which started when Jack began to be distant. Ella Rae champions her friends, and Laine has a few secrets of her own, including the secret recipe for her hummingbird cake. Without spoiling things, the basic plot is this: the three friends band together to support, love, and occasionally scold each other through a series of hard times.
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Something I liked about this book was that it has plenty of references to Southern life. I didn’t get all of the references to Southern living, but I did get the references to small-town life. They were spot on, so I imagine that to someone from the south, this book would feel quite cozy in places.
Carrigan is the narrator in The Secret to Hummingbird Cake, so we get to know her the best. She’s a no-nonsense lady who starts the novel feeling distant and unhappy in her marriage. She suspects her husband is having an affair and considers leaving him, so Carrigan deals with an emotional roller coaster throughout the novel. However, McHale writes her in such a way that, even when we don’t agree with her, we understand her.
Laine, on the other hand, is a teacher and the maker of the best hummingbird cake that has ever been made. She swears she will take the recipe to her grave. Her friends are frustrated with her at times because Laine is the kind of person who calls it as she sees it. So, when her friends are doing things she thinks is wrong, she tells them so. However, they love her and her sweetness. In some ways, Laine is the heart of the trio, though she has her own secrets.
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The third in the trio, Ella Rae, is tough as nails. She’s happily married and not afraid to fight for her friends. She’s more of a smart-alec than Carrigan or Laine, and more willing to throw hands, as Carrigan puts it. Ella Rae does have a soft spot, however, and that is for her friends. Also, when there is a birth in the story, Ella Rae is the only one to faint. A lot of the humor in the novel comes from Ella Rae, which is a nice balance to the rest of the story, which can be quite serious.
The characters in The Secret to Hummingbird Cake feel real, as do their struggles, friendships, and triumphs. In the beginning, the novel seems to head in a clear direction, a story of friendship and triumph over misunderstandings. But the end is so much more. The struggles that these women and their families go through feels authentic, and McHale doesn’t shy away from writing a heart-wrenching story. In the end, though, this is a story about friendship, persevering through hardship, and the fact that our close friends can become our family. If you like contemporary adult fiction that will make you laugh, cry, and want to hug all your friends, give The Secret to Hummingbird Cake a read. It’s a novel well worth the read.
WARNING (with minor spoilers)
If cancer is personal to you (it is for me), this book may hit a little closer to home. So, be prepared when reading the book.
Content Note: There is some drinking, mentions of infidelity, rape, cancer, and fighting, but it’s all handled quite well in the context of the novel. Just be aware of that.
Have you read The Secret to Hummingbird Cake yet? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
“You had me at hello.”
“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me
to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
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