Author: Nancy Spiller
Publisher: Counterpoint - Berkeley
ISBN: 978-1-61902-112-9

Family life is a bit like baking a cake; a whole lot of ingredients get mixed together and sometimes there’s a good outcome. The success or failure of a cake recipe, though doesn’t have the power to change your life, family relationships do. Growing up in a loving family where parents stay together through thick and thin, particularly the thin, really helps the transition from childhood dependency to adult self determination.

Nancy Spiller, in her memoir Compromise Cake, uses recipes, learned at her mother’s side, to lay to rest the mystery of why her mother’s life became an unhappy diet of compromise and angry despair after following most women of the times (‘forties through ‘sixties) career option of: marriage and a family. The compromises – gradual at first, Ms Spiller’s mother, Marguerite, came to realize that with a husband and four children a freedom cake flavoured by self-expression and happiness was something she could dream about but never taste.

This realization is not unusual for Marguerite’s generation or indeed for any women who’s rosy expectations of marriage founder somewhere between a rock and a hard place. Most women, and men too, overcome the trials and tribulations of keeping a family together by compromise on both sides to provide a haven of happy normalcy for their children.

Marguerite was unable to do this, understandable, as the snapshots recorded in Compromise Cake of her life before marriage reveal a young woman who was desperate for ‘something to happen’ and to meet ‘an exciting man’. While waiting for these events, she trained as a teacher, a job she didn’t like and met an ordinary young man, who after courting Marguerite, proposed marriage.

The ‘something happening’ or ‘exciting man’ dragging their respective feet, Marguerite accepted the proposal. It’s never a good idea to accept second best and for Nancy Spiller’s family it was a disaster.  By the time, Nancy (the youngest of four) was born her parent’s marriage was shaky.

In this well written memoir of life in Northern California in the 1960’s, Nancy Spiller explores her childhood and later adult relationship with her mother in Northern California. The narration moves backward and forward in time as the author, aided by letters, newspaper clippings and handwritten recipes saved by her mother, tries to understand her relationship with her mother and the reasons behind the complex personality that was Marguerite – an accomplished cook who provided family meals and desserts in abundance, a mother who was often withdrawn with barely suppressed anger.

Seen through the eyes of Nancy, the child, scenes from family life are recalled and are more or less happy. The author comments that if this is the only life you know, then as a child you accept it as normal and are grateful for brief moments of happiness. Written in an anecdotal style, the accounts of young Nancy’s often sad and lonely life, largely ignored by a mother she tries hard to please, take a turn for the worse when at age nine, her parents divorce. Nancy and her siblings are cared for by an alienated mother who forsakes friends and family to begin a downward spiral which results in mental illness (bi-polar syndrome); happiness never again enters the family home.

Despite withdrawal from her children, Marguerite still cooks for them, preparing dishes before disappearing into her bedroom. Unlike her siblings, Nancy, desperate to preserve the only connection she has with her mother; a shared interest in recipes, eats the cholesterol laden offerings and becomes (in her own words) ‘chubby’. Every chapter of the book is illustrated and linked to Marguerite’s recipes. Preparation is described in delicious detail but regular eating of these mouthwaterer’s wouldn’t make you chubby but with lashings of lard and sugar, decidedly fat.

Compromise Cake is a touching realistically written portrayal of family life that has gone badly wrong and the suffering that mental illness of a parent can inflict on children.

Nancy Spiller recounts her struggle to overcome destructive behaviour in her adult life but does not give intimate details of her parent’s marriage breakup or Marguerite’s mental illness and provides only glimpses of her father’s life thereafter. It is a testament to the quality of her writing that I would really like to know more about these events to understand why she was left in the care of a seriously ill mother.

Perhaps the above will be explained in Nancy Spiller’s next memoir. I hope so, Compromise Cake was a lovely read.      

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