Book review: What Would Mary Berry Do? by Claire Sandy

(courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Mary Berry is one of the undisputed doyennes of British food cooking, writing and presenting, an amazingly talented person who has achieved a considerable amount in her 87 years on earth.

But is she role model material?

You get the feeling that Mary herself would demur any suggestion that you should pattern any part of your life after her exemplary one, such is her apparent humility, but that is precisely what dentist and successful business owner Marie Dunwoody does one day when she decides she has had enough of failing at baking.

Much of the rest of her life is enviously content; she has a husband, Robert, who loves her and is her soulmate in the truest sense of the word, three kids who act like typical kids but who are, by most measures, quite wonderful, and a business at the heart of her community where Marie really feels she is doing some good.

Not much, you would think, to feel bad about it, but Marie is lacking one crucial thing – she can’t bake, with the back blurb of the book in which she is a warmly spirited protagonist, What Would Mary Berry Do? by Claire Sandy, declaring “her cupcakes are crap … her meringues are runny and her biscuits rock-hard.”

Even her toffee leaves a great deal to be desired, and after an embarrassing incident at her kids’ school fete, where she may have possibly – OK she DID – passed off shop-bought goods as her own, she decides that will learn how to bake with the help of Mary Berry whom she regards as the only one to steer her to baking nirvana.

In the deep dip of the night, midway through a perfectly pleasant dream involving herself, Angus’s art teacher and no clothes, Marie was shaken awake by an insistent hand.

‘Look!’ Robert was gibbering, almost tearful, like a new Miss World. ‘Rolls! ROLLS!’

Thrust under her nose was a warm, fragrant, squat and lovely roll that smelled of Cheddar and rosemary and old-fashioned goodness.

‘Rolls!’ said Robert again.

‘Rolls, darling,’ agreed Marie, proud of him. And just the teeniest bit envious.

Her neighbour Lucy, who maintains a perfect house with a perfect husband and a perfect stepdaughter and well, perfect everything – she is a formidable presence in the neighbourhood and Marie is wholly and completely intimidated by her – swears by Delia Smith aka Saint Delia in The Vicar of Dibley, but only Mary will do for Marie who, over a year, finds a certainty in baking that eludes her in the rest of her life.

It is a year that certainly seems determined to defy any comforting sense of certainty.

Husband Robert’s job is on shaky ground, not because of his performance which is as impressive as ever but because he’s losing out in the politicking stakes at work, her eldest, son Angus seems uncharacteristically switched off and distant, the reason for it known only to younger twin sisters Iris and Rose who decide to do something radical to remedy it, and the success of Marie’s practice is threatened by the arrival of a brash, new showy dentist in town whose ethics are dubious but whose profits are healthy in a way Marie can only dream about.

In the midst of all this slowly-simmering chaos – her life hardly turns upside down, and in fact some very good things happen, but it’s hardly steady as she goes; but then, whoever really gets that? – Marie finds a sense of calm and purpose in following the instructions of the Queen of Baking to the hilt, discovering that while she can’t match Lucy’s superlatively perfect style of baking, that she might actually be able to make food that people love eating.

(courtesy Pan Macmillan)

Funny, clever and beautifully, accessibly grounded, What Would Mary Berry Do? is a delight to read.

The characters are hilarious and yet emotionally resonantly grounded, the dialogue crackles with the real stuff of life, and in the case of one of her practice staff Aileen, ballsy hilarity in every utterance, and the story is involvingly dramatic without falling into overwrought domestic melodrama.

Much of the appeal of the book comes to its narrative centre, Marie, who is a genuinely good and loving person who wants to do the best by her patients, her staff, her husband and her kids and who, while mostly succeeding, never quite feels like she is succeeding in the way she’d like to.

But as she bakes, and she gets to know herself, and others around her in new and pleasingly revelatory ways, Marie discovers that perfection may be overrated and that perhaps simply being connected to people and doing your best is more than enough.

Certainly as a host of challenges, big and small come her way, she finds in herself, and who knows, perhaps Mary Berry has strengthened and emboldened her to handle them, the ability to weather them, even if her execution, like all of us mere mortals, isn’t quite what she’s aiming for.

By the end of Easter Saturday, every Dunwoody was full of chocolate, sick of the stuff and desperate for more. Lazy and inert, they lay around the house like abandoned mattresses.

The thing is, written by Sandy with wit, authenticity and an empathy for the truth of the human condition which is that we reach high but often fall well short, Marie is one of those protagonists who you quickly embrace because she feels like affectingly and humourously real.

To one extent or another, we are all Marie, and while we might not find a salvation of sorts in baking as Marie does, and interestingly as she husband Robert does too to a life-changing degree, we are all hoping we can make our lives better somehow.

It’s a relatable point of connection, and Sandy executes on it in What Would Mary Berry Do? in ways that move and amuse you, with writing that crackles with wit and verve, vibrant characterisation and a cosy sense that while life is rarely perfect, and often feels wilfully flawed, that it has a great deal of very good things going for it.

Sure, it may take some work, whether that’s baking like Marie does, grappling with work challenges such as Robert has to or finding out that looking like an Insta influencer is not all its cracked up to be as Lucy discovers during one harrowing period, but when you do reach for the stars, even if they are covered in flour and sugar and red food colouring, you might just find you land further up your aspirational list of things that will make my life better than you think.

Quite where Marie, or anyone of the many charmingly honest characters in What Would Mary Berry Do? lands is best left to the highly enjoyable and richly rewardingly, innately humourous and insightful reading, but suffice to say this is one novel that comes close to proving Mary Berry may just be the role model for the ages, that sour things can often be made far sweeter than we expect and that perhaps while life may not be perfect, it may have far more working in its favour than any of us realise.

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