Prue Leith

From bitter loss to sweet relief: baking as therapy

Recovering from the death of her mother, Olivia Potts finally feels her spirits rise as she masters gravity-defying soufflés and other such challenges

This is a gentle, lovely book. It will, I’m sure, appeal to many an aspiring cook and baker, and should be read by anyone grieving for the loss of someone they loved. It is a memoir — each chapter ending with a recipe — covering a few years, from the sudden death of a beloved mother, through the author’s bleak, enveloping sorrow to a change of career, retraining as a pastry chef, and a love affair.

At first, I found it unengaging. The stages of grief — denial, anger, resentment of other people’s happiness, manic displacement activity, exhaustion, sudden outbursts of either wracking sobs or unsuitable laughter — are well-written and honest, but too familiar, too predictable. (Though what did I want? Originality in grief?)

But gradually I was drawn in to Olivia Potts’ almost obsessive love for her mother, and her ways of coping — or not coping — with her death. Adopting the ‘I’m fine, I’m fine’ mantra, she works ridiculous hours as a junior barrister in chambers, begins to think that criminal law might not be for her and feels guilty about falling in love.

The legal bits are fascinating. Not so much the cases — most criminals are pathetic and their crimes either too mundane or horrible to dwell on — but Olivia’s own life: her pride in her absurd wig and gown, which give her both status and anonymity (she isn’t recognised in civvies at a bus stop by someone she’s just accused in court of shagging the postman); her arbitrary winning and losing of cases, often having nothing to do with her own skills, let alone the truth; or her description of the magistrates court cells on a Saturday morning:

The stench of sweat is overpowering. Underneath, you can detect the sickly-sweet smell of alcohol leaching from pores.

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