Book Reviews

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake by Alexis Hall

TW/CW for the book

Emotional abuse, bi-phobia, gaslighting, sexual assault

Rosaline Palmer Takes the Cake is a fun rom-com in which a single mom enters a baking contest (a fictional version of The Great British Bake Off) and finds true love. The question is not “will she find true love” but “with whom will she find it?” Readers should expect to be very hungry while reading this book, as well as by turns amused, infuriated, and delighted. They should also expect to be really moved as this funny book does not flinch from some serious and painful topics.

Our story begins with a missed train. Rosaline is the daughter of two very high-achieving parents who put enormous pressure on her to become a doctor. However, she dropped out of college to raise her daughter Amelie and now works in a stationary shop and struggles financially. Her ex-girlfriend, Lauren, is still her best friend and biggest cheerleader. Rosaline applies to be a contestant on Bake Expectations in hopes of landing a higher-paying job, perhaps involving a cooking column. She’s vague on the details.

However, Rosaline misses her train which forces her to meet-cute (and explain what meet cute means) another contestant who has also missed the train, Alain. In true rom-com fashion, Rosaline finds herself telling Alain that she is bisexual (true) and dropped out of med school (also true). She also, in a mad attempt to seem more interesting, tells him that she dropped out of med school in order to take a gap year in Malawi (blatant lie) and that she is back in medical school (another blatant lie). Surely this will not have repercussions of an embarrassing nature…or WILL THEY?

This book is very much a rom-com, not a romance:we get a glorious ensemble of characters, a focus on Rosaline’s character growth, and a story that only gives the reader Rosaline’s point of view. It also has two love interests, with Rosaline wanting to be with Alain, who is just exactly the kind of guy her parents would love, while she actually prefers spending time with Harry, a working-class, laconic guy who is both kind and useful (he’s an electrician). The main focus of the book is less on who Rosaline will end up with and more on why, and how she learns to be a more confident person who takes ownership of the life she wants to lead instead of the life she thinks she should lead.

Amanda: Carrie pretty much covers everything in terms of the plot! I’ve also seen people call this fiction with strong romantic elements, which I can very well see an argument for. The focus is certainly on Rosaline with the romance being a very big part of her character arc.

There are two things I loved with my whole heart and soul about this book. One, the baking. I think we’re all big fans of The Great British Bake Off and I know many of us have turned to baking as a pandemic pastime. All the yummy baked goods and really seeing that connection between people and food will always be a big plus in terms of my personal catnip!

Second, Rosaline and her bisexuality. She’s open about her identity and her daughter Amelie possesses the language and understanding to know her mom loves all sexualities. However, Rosaline still feels a lot of insecurity and she experiences external and internal biphobia. As a bisexual woman, I’ve dealt with both of those things, from the terrible internalized voice inside my head that screams I’ll never settle down because I’m wishy washy,to acquaintances saying that they don’t believe bisexuality exists. (Yes, this was said in a conversation about sexuality. No, they didn’t know I was bisexual before? running their mouth. Yes, I told them, “How strange, when I’m literally sitting right here, existing.)

There are times when I pick up a book and think, “Wow, this must have been written just for me” and that’s how Rosaline Palmer made me feel.

Carrie: I loved the contrast between Alain and Harry, and how it demonstrated how different Rosaline’s values are from her parents. I thought it was clever that at first Alain was quite likeable and that he didn’t suddenly have a personality change just because the plot demanded it. It was easy to see that the same traits that made him seem attractive at first (good-looking, well-dressed, and quite funny) were some of the same traits that, when seen differently, made him unattractive (vain, superficial, prone to mean and cutting remarks). I was not surprised that Rosaline liked him, since, to be honest, I liked him for about one chapter myself.

Harry, however, Harry would DEFINITELY pass the Vomit Test (this is my test of true love, which revolves around whether one’s romantic partner will immediately volunteer to clean up vomit during a crisis). I liked that Rosaline’s attraction to Harry parallels her recognition of what she values as opposed to what her parent’s value: kindness, practicality, dependability, and acceptance. And humor, of course, but not humor based in cruelty, which is Alain’s stock in trade. Also Harry can cook and he is great with her daughter and her friends.

I noticed that this book stuck with me for a long time which to me is a sign of good writing. I think about Rosaline as though she is a real person. I also loved the role that being a mother played in her life, and how it affected her relationships with the people around her and her daughter.

Amanda: Since you mentioned Harry and Alain, shall we talk about Rosaline’s current romantic partners?

Also, would you consider this a love triangle? I know that trope can be a “love it or hate it” element.

Carrie: Technically I guess this is a love triangle, and I’m sick unto death of love triangles. However for some reason this didn’t feel like a love triangle to me, maybe because Harry does not consciously compete with Alain and because Rosaline doesn’t pine over which one to be with – it’s more of a segue from one to the other. I also think it helped that while the romance was delightful when it involved Harry, it wasn’t the real focus of the story. Rosaline changed lovers largely because her confidence in making her own choices changed.

Amanda: Right! Completely fair. It didn’t become a scenario with both Alain and Harry being assholes for the sake of winning Rosaline’s love.

I know you did mention earlier that Alain kind of does some shitty things and I do think that’s worth discussing or at least spoiling for readers, especially because I think what happens is a common misconception and a hurtful stereotype related to bi people.

It also caught me off guard a bit, because when we first meet Alain, he’s likable and charming, but there are plenty of people who are like that on the outside and just start to slip in little shitty things here and there (about someone’s weight or sexuality). They snowball into this one big moment for Rosaline where it becomes clear Alain is not the man she thought he was.

And with Harry, it’s not incredibly complicated to see where Rosaline’s attraction is coming from. At first, she dismisses him as a “Cockney fuckboy.” He’s a bit of a strong, silent type who wins Rosaline by offering help, chuckling at her jokes, and just being a big ol’ cutie patootie.

Carrie: A cutie who bakes, who is willing to learn, who is a good listener, and who is a lot more intelligent than he initially seems to be. Meanwhile, Alain:

Douchebaggery ahoy!

Alain has made repeated, and escalating, comments that imply that he equates bisexuality with promiscuity and experimentation (nothing is wrong with promiscuity or experimentation, but they are not some sort of by-product of bi-sexuality as Alain assumes).

He invites Rosalind to dinner at his isolated country home, only to surprise her with the presence of his extremely drunk ex-girlfriend who is “bi-curious” and tries to force her into a threesome. She locks herself in the bathroom until Harry can pick her up. The scene is deeply upsetting, relies on coercion, and contains a tremendous amount of sexism, biphobia, victim-blaming, and gaslighting.

Carrie: I adored this book but I do want readers to be ready for some tough stuff particularly the incessant emotional abuse from Rosaline’s parents and the epic awful action of Alain in the spoiler. I would give this book at least a B+, because I think of it fondly and often after reading it, which means that it found a home in my brain and stayed there. Also it made me very hungry, and I loved the supporting characters and sense of community. Two thumbs up from me.

Amanda: I may have enjoyed this one slightly more than Carrie, given how some of Rosaline’s thoughts, feelings, and actions have mirrored my own experiences.

But yes! The food descriptions and all the baking talk will leave you salivating. I know I just finished this one, but I’m already excited to see what Hall is coming out with next.

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