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True Confections

by Katharine Weber. Shaye Areheart Books / Crown Publishers, 288 pages, $22

Gooey caramel, chewy nougat, crispy salted peanuts and layers upon layers of creamy milk chocolate. Such is the stuff of childhood dreams, and such is the axis around which "True Confections" revolves. But let this not mislead you. Katharine Weber's novel is not a sweet, fluffy work of historical fiction about one struggling immigrant family's pursuit and realization of the American dream - an impression one might easily get from the jacket copy. Rather, Weber's is a smart, wry satire, whose serious agenda - to remind us that appearances are almost always deceiving - is explored through crunchy bites of drama and humor.

Weber, the author of four earlier novels and numerous short stories, welds together three narratives in her latest book, offering a taste of the candy business, Jewish-American immigrant history and one desperate shiksa's attempts to be accepted into a Jewish family. Holding the story together is the firm narration of Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky, who is cool, dry and - paradoxically - ultimately unreliable and unfathomable. Her matter-of-fact recounting of the wild ways of the Ziplinsky family of New Haven, Connecticut, and of the dramatic downfall of their Zip's Candies empire serves two purposes: It keeps the reader focused and alert, and it highlights how very unhappy the people involved in the business of keeping America happy - the candy business, that is - can really be. At turns victim and aggressor, puppet and puppeteer, Alice imparts her colorful story with such a total lack of self-awareness that it cannot help but be humorous, making for a scrumptious satire.

'Clear and objective'

Katharine Weber, by contrast, is well aware of what she is doing. As the author of the acclaimed "Triangle" (2006 ), based on the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, she is an old hand at historical fiction - and at writing about old flames. In "True Confections," her aim is to challenge the reader to ponder the truth behind appearances by choosing an unreliable narrator (who believes herself to be "clear and objective" ) to analyze a series of bizarre events with certainty and detachment. Weber skillfully frames the entire book as Alice's affidavit, submitted to the New Haven court where she is to stand trial for having burned down the candy factory she heads. The second page takes us back to the very beginning of the story, to Alice's first day on Zip's assembly line as an 18-year-old summer hire. Here Alice recalls her first encounter with the man she later marries (and divorces ) and his perpetually disgruntled mother, neither of whom she is ever able to satisfy: "The necessary reach-shuffle-reach-shuffle Tigermelt-straightening gesture was demonstrated for me with condescending efficiency, with the belt running at half speed, by the irritable Frieda Ziplinsky, whose husband, Sam, had just hired me that morning, an impulsive act on his part that she would regret audibly every few weeks for the next 33 years. In the sixth minute, I had my first glimpse of my future ex-husband."

This telling paragraph reverberates with insight into the Ziplinsky parents, who aren't too happy when their only surviving son, the beloved Howard, stoops to marrying one of the help, the non-Jewish Alice Tatnall. With characteristic bluntness meant to conceal her desperate desire to belong, Alice frequently shares her conviction that she was a better Jew than any other member of the Ziplinsky family: "So Howard wasn't much of a Jew. I tried so hard, 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 39 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? The 'aacccchh' does not come naturally to a Tatnall throat."

Alice, now a middle-aged divorcee living in Connecticut, hails from a long line of New England WASPs and, in a comic aside, states that her lesbian daughter Julie, who has inherited Howard's dark Ziplinsky looks, is eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, if she so desires - which she most certainly does not. Neither her Protestant forbears nor her Jewish roots hold much interest for Julie; all she wants is to break out of the web of conventions that she believes society has woven for her.

As a whole, the Ziplinskys are anything but observant Jews. Frieda Ziplinsky may take an instant dislike to the 18-year-old Alice - but that's because she sees immediately that Alice spells Trouble, not because she's a Gentile. Why Frieda senses that Alice will bring Trouble is a question that seems to answer itself as the novel goes on, culminating in the fact that Alice eventually becomes the majority shareholder of Zip's and then torches the plant.

But for all her shortcomings - including a lack of passion for anything other than candy, along with her inability to examine her choices critically - Alice considers herself beyond reproach. It is the narrator's dubious assessment of her own life that provokes the reader to question her credibility and urges us to look beyond appearances if we are to find the truth. Indeed, it is her delectably fictitious "true confessions," more than the caramel or nougat, that are the real confections here.

Alice gives the two most dramatic events in the story little more than a glancing mention, and in those passages she whines like a child about being accused of having criminal motivations for setting Zip's Candies on fire - more than 30 years after starting a fire that burned down her friend's home (and killed the family cat ). Alice doesn't deny that she started both of the fires, but insists that she had no malicious intent.

Madagascar Vanilla

In the first fire, at her friend Debbie Livingston's house, Alice swung her bag at an annoying schoolmate, "forgetting" that the bag contained a water gun filled with lighter fluid and that they were standing beside the barbecue. In the second fire, Alice decides to burn all documents attesting to the Ziplinsky family history, including contracts and recipes, in "empty" 50-gallon drums on the loading dock that are, in fact, filled with the highly flammable Czaplinsky Pure Madagascar Vanilla. This act spells the end of the family business but, Alice claims, she didn't mean it: "It isn't arson if there is no intent. It's just an accidental fire. Call me Accidental Fire Girl." However, Alice unwittingly proceeds to reveal her motive for setting the candy factory fire, saying that despite the explosion of the drums, "everything I wanted to destroy was in fact successfully incinerated." The reader is also left with the sense that Alice was motivated by a desire to enact revenge on her lying, cheating husband and his disapproving family. The fires and other episodes, such as factory-line mishaps like Bereavemints (funeral home candies with such concentrated flavor they leave mourners gasping for air) leave the reader feeling dubious about her character and credibility - which is precisely what Weber wants. Weber skillfully plays with Alice as narrator. The narrator is the reader's guide, the reader's light in the dark; so if you can't trust the narrator, whom can you trust? Alice seems to believe herself sincere. But while she tiptoes around the truth in her own life, Alice is brazenly creative when it comes to the Ziplinsky family history. She happily imparts the poignant tale of the Hungarian origins of the Czaplinsky family (the spelling was changed after Zip's founder, Eli, moves to America ) and the escape of its various members from Europe around the time of the Holocaust, but then unabashedly admits to fudging most of the details. Alice tells us for example that Julius Czaplinsky, Eli's brother, fled Hungary to establish a home for his family and a colony for the Jews of Europe in Madagascar. In some of the most delicious scenes in the novel, Alice presents the imagined histories of Howard's family, taking the basic facts imparted to her by her dear departed father-in-law, Sam, and spinning detailed stories that simply do not hold up to logical scrutiny. And, true to form, she waxes "candid" with the reader, acknowledging her speculations are less than reliable: "I have to admit the time line is way off here. Why is the sudden and successful British invasion of Madagascar in May 1942 not in this story? ... Let's allow for the possibility that he [Julius] welcomed the British forces ... that would be good, if Julius did that. It improves the story. Let's say he did." Notwithstanding the bogus credibility of said "recollections," these fantastical stories pay homage to the dreams - the American dream, the flight of the imagination - that drive "True Confections" forward.

Alice flits between cozy, pastry-scented Hungarian coffeehouses and vast, largely uninhabited Madagascar, between the homemade caramel kisses of 1920s European sweet shops and the scented cacao and vanilla plantations of the island off the southeastern coast of Africa. But like chocolate, these fantasies have a melting point. The tropical island also happe ns to be home to Howard's second family - the one he kept hidden from Alice for more than 30 years under the pretense of visiting Madagascar to obtain raw supplies for Zip's Candies, and the one he ultimately chooses over his New Haven family. Moreover, the American dream - the success of Zip's and the prosperity of the Ziplinsky family - ends up deflated by greed, betrayal and revenge.

"True Confections" urges us to question what we are told is fact, and to recognize that what looks too good to be true, like "guilt-free" chocolate, usually is. With just the right concentration of drama and just the right proportion of humor, Katharine Weber explores what really lies behind the American dream, the dream of chocolate and the dream of a happy marriage.

Tallie Lieberman, a former editor at Haaretz English Edition, is currently working as a press and political affairs officer at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing.