Taking the reader on a journey through every aspect of the stirring, sugary world of Zip’s Candies, Katharine Weber highlights the tribulations of the lively and exotic Ziplinksy family, whose dynastic squabbles shape much of the action. The company - founded by Eli Czaplinksy, a Hungarian Jew, who arrived at
age sixteen at Ellis Island with his brother, Morris, in 1920 - was renowned for producing Little Sammys, Tigermelts, and the delicious licorice Mumbo Jumbos.
That marvelous and ineffable “just right aura” of Eli’s beautiful sweet and delicious candies, combined with the burnt sugar and chocolate aroma at the Zip factory, seduces the young Alice Tatnall when she steps into the company’s headquarters in 1975. Interviewed for a position by Eli’s son, Sam Ziplinsky, who runs the company, she’s immediately given a position on the floor, only too happy to escape her tortured past.
Thought of as the local “Arson Girl,” after setting fire to her friend Debbie Livingston’s house, Alice’s rancid and bitter piece of the past is inexorably blended into the present when she finds herself caught up in the lives of the Ziplinksy
family - even marrying Sam’s son, dark, handsome, wisecracking Howard Ziplinksy. Desperate to abscond from her Arson Girl fate, Alice is captivated by every aspect of Howard and Sam’s world.
Thus Alice sets about retooling the Ziplinsky family lore, plunging us into a multi-faceted confessional where she recounts Howard’s unwillingness or inability to play the part of a grownup,
exhibiting an arrogance that sometimes afflicts those who have had all their good fortune handed to them. Alice’s bitterness at her failed marriage is counteracted by the admiration and respect she has for her two kids, Julie and Jacob who - as she writes - are poised to bolster and perhaps take over the company.
But, like everyone else in this story, Alice has always seen only what she wanted to see. Her “pleasurable slide into that warm chocolate vat” is accompanied by the sour taste of Sam’s wife.
Condescending and irritable Frieda Ziplinsky sees Alice as an interloper destined to take her precious son away from her. Then there’s the impact of Howard’s sister’s scorn. Irene, with her “otiose connection” to the business,
has only ever promoted her own status and prosperity, using her money over the years to fund a wide variety of half-baked do-good, feel-good enterprises of the moment.
Alice tells us of her enduring love of Sam. An astute businessman and an astute judge of character, Sam truly anticipated the need to protect Alice as he did. With the lines perpetually in motion forever-after of thriftily appropriated machinery, mixing, blending, forming, and extruding a neverending flow of candy. Eli’s dream of beautiful sweets is brought to fruition while the third and youngest brother, Julius - left behind with cousins in Budapest - eventually arrives in Madagascar as a Jewish exile and stakes his claim by using his diamonds to build an empire.
While the novel gets bogged down a bit by the ins-and-outs of candymaking, the book is mostly rich in detail and narrative, both the historical and contemporary elements transporting the reader through time and place, highlighting Alice’s need to be loved and accepted for her hard work. Alice’s life has taken many unexpected turns as she looks back to when she first set about honoring the legacy of Sam, her father-in-law, who before he died became her treasured friend and confidante. A story about human nature and how we resist genuine patterns and meanings, Alice dramatically brings to life the ups and downs of an American capitalist success story, the innovative vision of Eli Ziplinsky and his candies finally made mouth-wateringly real.