By Lisa Zeidner
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; C04
Zip's Candies, established in 1924, is in trouble. After the death of its patriarch and several disastrous candy experiments -- including Bereavemints, which caused "severe graveside allergic reactions" and a slew of lawsuits -- the small factory may be forced to fold or get swallowed up by one of the candymaking giants.
Katharine Weber's succulently inventive fifth novel, "True Confections," traces the history of the candy company and its founders, the Ziplinsky family of Hungary and the Lower East Side. Narrator Alice Tatnall Ziplinsky only married into the family but, much to the horror of her in-laws, winds up inheriting the lion's share of the company. After decades in psychoanalysis, saucy Alice is quite capable of dissecting the family's neuroses. "In the interest of delineating every branch of this bonsai of a family tree," she unearths many of the family's closeted skeletons, including the founder's involvement with the Jewish Mafia.
As she did in her previous novel, "Triangle," about the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Weber skillfully weaves fact and fiction. She creates not only three generations of a globe-trotting family history, but an entire line for Zip's Candies. Little Sammies, Tigermelts and Mumbo Jumbos -- named in tribute to "The Story of Little Black Sambo," the book that taught its immigrant founder to read English -- cause no end of political-correctness problems for the company as it confronts the incendiary connotations of "white chocolate" and a furor about Third World slave children harvesting cocoa.
Weber blends her fictional world with the very real and equally bizarre history of American candy manufacture, including the fact that our food contains red dye made from crushed South American insect carcasses; and that the pioneering Chicken Dinner bar, introduced in the 1920s, was advertised as wholesome. (It was actually regular candy, not chicken.)
Despite being giddy fun, "True Confections" also poses some sly, sophisticated postmodern questions. What do candy manufacturers and novelists have in common? According to Weber, more than you'd think. The candymaker, like the novelist, lives, breathes and dreams her creation. The small candy factory, like the literary novelist, finds it hard to generate interest for quirky, original products in the world of tasteless, big-box dreck. A novel should give us "that unique blend of sweetness and pleasure and something else, a deep note of something rich and exotic and familiar" that a bite of good chocolate does. "True Confections" certainly delivers that delectability.
Zeidner's most recent novel is "Layover." She directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Camden.