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This Cake is for the Party: Stories [Paperback]

Sarah Selecky
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 8 2010

Finalist for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize and longlisted for the 2010 Frank O'Connor Award

Sarah Selecky’s first book takes dead aim at a young generation of men and women who often set out with the best of intentions, only to have plans thwarted or hopes betrayed.

These are stories about friendships and relationships confused by unsettling tensions bubbling beneath the surface. A woman who plans to conceive ends up in the arms of her husband’s best friend; a man who baby-sits a neglected four-year-old ends up questioning his own dysfunctional relationship; a chance encounter at a gala event causes a woman to remember when she volunteered for a nightmarish drug-testing clinic; another woman discovers that her best friend who is about to get married has just had an affair; a young teenager tries to escape from her controlling father and finds an unexpected lover on a bus ride home; a wife tries to overcome her dying mother-in-law’s resistance to her marriage by revealing to her own strange aural stigmata; a friend tries to talk another friend out of dating her cheating ex-boyfriend; and a superstitious candle-maker confesses to a tempestuous relationship that implodes spectacularly.

Sarah Selecky is a talented young writer who evokes a generation teetering on the shoals of consumerism and ambiguous mores. Reminiscent of early Atwood, with echoes of Lisa Moore and Barbara Gowdy, these absorbing stories are about love and longing, stories that touch us in a myriad of subtle and affecting ways.

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Product Description

Quill & Quire

One of the great joys of reading a collection of short fiction is the opportunity to experience a writer at play. Characters, themes, absurdities, and moods that could become overwhelming in a novel are somehow more acceptable in stories confined to a few dozen pages. When authors drastically change structure or voice between stories, it’s as though the reader is glimpsing the writer’s imagination going in many different directions at once. It’s fun.

This sense of play, however, is largely absent from Sarah Selecky’s debut collection. Whether by design or default, the changes in narrative register from story to story are so subtle that all the entries read the same way. Though Selecky’s narrative voice is strong, she seems unwilling or unable to allow her characters to deviate from it. Consequently, the collection as a whole is slightly disappointing, though each individual story is really, really good.

The writing in This Cake Is for the Party is very descriptive – in “Watching Atlas,” one character “carries a depth of scent that is familiar, like beef gravy, but with a sharp edge” – and entire paragraphs are dedicated to setting the scene with precise detail. In “How Healthy Are You,” the simple event of dessert being served at a fundraiser is rendered complex by its intricate presentation:

A slice of warm chocolate cake with a wet, slick pudding centre is served in a wide dish dusted with icing sugar. A sliver of strawberry and two blueberries roll beside it. Their dessert forks are small and highly polished. When it is set in front of him, Bruno eyes the chocolate with longing. The candlelight makes his eyes look shiny and liquefied, and Carolyn wonders briefly if the cake has made him cry.

This level of elaboration could easily weigh the story down, rendering it overly ornate and difficult, but Selecky is adept at creating scenes that are taut and vivid. She is a wordy writer, but the words she uses are carefully chosen, and despite the verbosity, even lengthy passages are brisk and well-crafted.

Selecky explores the awful side of romantic involvements in many of her stories, with several characters straying from their partners, or doing the one thing that is most sure to hurt the person they are supposed to love. In “This Is How We Grow as Humans,” Franny is friends with Pima and Richard, until Richard leaves Pima for Franny. The story centres on an awkward meeting between the women, in which Franny struggles to come to grips with the fact that despite her engagement to Richard, she’s actually in love with both him and Pima, and Pima does her best to maintain her composure, all the while seething with anger at her former friend. Bouncing between emotionally fraught comments and banal observations, the dialogue and mood are just right, convincingly capturing the conversation between two people who know each other well but whose relationship has irrevocably severed.

In addition to adultery and sleeping with friends’ mates, alcoholism, loneliness, dead parents, and religion all feature prominently in these stories. Health and illness are also heavily represented, and Selecky manages to make being health-conscious appear negative in several of them, most notably “Go-Manchura.” Lillian is a lonely woman trying to get her friends to buy into a line of nutritional products. It quickly becomes clear, through Lillian’s humorous, overly earnest narration, that it’s more likely the wine and vodka that are improving her mood and helping her sleep than the mystery ingredient in the organic mushroom lasagna she’s eating.

The strongest story in the collection is “Paul Farenbacher’s Garage Sale,” in which Meredith helps her neighbours sell the effects of the late Paul Farenbacher, to whom Meredith had become quite close during his battle with lung cancer. It is obvious that her relationship with the elder Farenbacher was a complicated one – did she love him as a father figure? A friend? More than a friend? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Her grief is palpable in the final paragraphs, and it’s a testament to Selecky’s skill that she can so accurately depict a moment of pure emotion in such a simple but startling way.

This Cake Is for the Party may not offer a variety of styles or tones, and the subjects covered are anything but fun, but it possesses a satisfying blend of humour, angst, desperation, and warmth. Several of the stories get better with repeated readings, as the intricate layers are peeled back, revealing great characters and believable situations that resonate. With these stories, Selecky proves that her expertise is genuine, though one hopes she will explore new voices and take more risks in future work.


Selecky harbours deep affection for her characters, combined with effortless grace; there is truly not a weak link to be found. She has a keen ear for understated dialogue, and a gift for unusual description...

The characters are real. They are so effortlessly and quintessentially themselves, especially Laura, with her unique way of speaking. This story has been one of my favourite writing teachers.

...I loved it. I've discovered that I love certain books in different ways, and this one asked to be with me as though it were my blankie. This is one book I've clutched to my chest and felt close to... I'm having a really hard time trying to put words to the profundity of the experience... This Cake is an impressive, accomplished first collection from a very talented young author...a valuable addition to the Canadian literary scene. Whatever she's got coming next, I want a piece of it."

Compelling, clever and exceptionally crafted, This Cake really delivers.

From the first page, This Cake buzzes with casually great dialogue, and in every story, on every page, Selecky meets the fundamental requirement that fiction be multitasking. Her alternately comic and serious stories are inventive and honest...

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Stories, Not so compelling for me May 16 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The stories were written really well, so I certainly didn't struggle through the pages. Her style of writing is fantastic, I just felt the subject matter a little "chick lit" for my taste, at times I felt like I was reading Sex in the City: Toronto. Half the reason I'll still give it five stars despite its ultimate inability to emotionally reach me is that it is written really well. I'm looking forward to her other offerings...
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A man with a hard decision to make about the neighbour’s boy. A woman who tries to sell health products to her friends. Two couples entangled in infidelity. A woman writing a letter to her estranged husband’s mother. A young woman in love with a man… and his ex-girlfriend. A fire in the candle factory.

These are a few of the stories in Sarah Selecky’s This Cake Is for the Party, nominated for the Giller prize in 2010.

I read this book because I’m currently taking Sarah’s Story is a State of Mind e-course, and I wanted to know where she came from as an author.

I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not especially fond of short stories; I’m more of a sprawling multiple story lines kind of person. I like expansive, complex books that reflect the complexity of human life.

These short stories, in a way, achieve that. Sure, it’s about a certain type of people–working-class, sometimes entrepreneurs and people who make a living out of their garage. They are about moments in time or short periods of time (an evening, a weekend, an hour). But the variety of emotions and situations represented really made me feel like I was plunging in an unknown world.

From “A Thousand Wax Buddhas”, my favourite of the collection:

I wish I’d just asked her about the mileage. I could have just said it: What do the numbers mean? Why is ten o’clock important? I could have asked her. She would have let me in. But I was too afraid.

These stories are exquisitely crafted. They are fragile like insect wings and yet strong like reeds. They were mostly sad, it’s true, but sadness is not something we should shy away from. Life is full of it. I felt strangely invigorated after reading them.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By tdogg
I can't get enough cake! I just re-read Selecky's stories and what I notice most is how her characters really stay with you. The stories themselves weave across common adult and young couple themes but it is the characters themselves that are so incredibly well rendered. Good writing isn't about telling, it's about being drawn in and this is what happens when I read these stories. Whether I like the character or not, it is this feeling of kinship with the characters and the situations they are put in that makes these stories so readable. Watching Atlas and 1000 Wax Buddhas are definately favourites but all of the stories in this collection are good. If you like anything by Lisa Moore you will like these stories. Makes a great gift for the short story reader on your list. Can't wait for her next book.....
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