The City Girl’s Guide to Small Town Fiction: Why I Love Louise Miller’s Debut Novel

City Baker-1I’m a city girl. I’ve lived only in urban coastal areas–the Bay Area of Northern California and Boston. I write “urban women’s fiction.” Like many city-dwelling people of color, I am deeply dismayed by the relentless gentrification of the urban landscape. But many of us who lament gentrification are also part of the problem–namely, we celebrate the city and look down on rural and small-town living. In our arrogance, we reinforce the prejudice that cities are superior to small towns, and in response to this prejudice, people keep flocking to cities.

To be sure, there are challenges to small-town living, particularly for people of color, queer folks, and women who reject traditional gender roles. But the presumption that urban areas offer an inherently superior quality of life is both a prejudice and a myth. When we define thriving as having professional work, access to nightlife, and consumer products, cities certainly seem to offer “the good life.” However, many city dwellers are socially isolated, nature-starved, and mistake videos and music downloads for cultural enrichment.

Louise Miller’s THE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE TO COUNTRY LIVING offered me a rare and beautifully written glimpse into contemporary rural New England living. I can’t say that I’m prepared to move to Vermont, but I can say with conviction that I fell in love with her protagonist and the small town setting. Here’s the book description:

When Olivia Rawlings—pastry chef extraordinaire for an exclusive Boston dinner club—sets not just her flambéed dessert but the entire building alight, she escapes to the most comforting place she can think of—the idyllic town of Guthrie, Vermont. But the getaway turns into something more lasting when she receives a job offer. Broke and knowing that her days at the Boston club are numbered, Livvy accepts, and begins creating her mouthwatering desserts for the residents of Guthrie. With the joys of a fragrant kitchen, the sound of banjos and fiddles being tuned in a barn, and the crisp scent of the orchard just outside the front door, Livvy soon finds herself immersed in small town life. And when she meets Martin McCracken, she comes to understand that the life you want may not be the one you expected—it could be even better.

I don’t usually go for small town stories or cozy women’s fiction. Recently, in the summer TV slump, I tried to watch a small town show (which will remain nameless). I was bored to tears. The cutesy small town was more cloying than charming, and the trope of plucky-heroine-picks-small-town-over-big-empty-urban-dream rang hollow like the empty cliche it was.

violin banjoTHE CITY BAKER’S GUIDE, however, is different. Not only is Olivia a compelling and likeable protagonist, the book stole my heart for three additional reasons:

  1. the details of baking are so embodied by the author. Louise Miller is an incredible baker. She is writing what she knows, and the food jumps up off the page and makes you hungry…
  2. the sense of nature is so strongly present and beautifully rendered…
  3. the central role of music and traditional instruments ground the story in its folk culture roots.

People in cities go out to eat. People in this book cook and bake. We see Olivia’s hands in flour, in dough, rolling crusts with a rolling pin. We are connected to the labor of making food, and it’s deeply satisfying.

People in cities have sexy moments in clubs under artificial lights. Olivia and Martin’s romance develops in beautiful rural environments.

People in cities listen to music on electronic devices and speakers. Olivia and her community play acoustic folk music and dance: “I hadn’t been to a contra dance in years,” Olivia muses. “My mind flashed to a drunken evening I had spent on a culinary conference dance floor, rubbing my booty up against some sous chef. This was sexier.”

I don’t want to give away any spoilers for the plot, so I can’t go into any more detail. Suffice it to say that the characters are beautifully rendered, and the story really grounds the character’s transformation in a rural soulfulness that won the heart of this city girl.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.