Charmaine Wilkerson’s black cake recipe comes with no small amount of family baggage and secrets. The book carries powerful themes of deeply buried secrets, the value of traditions, bonds of loyalty, perseverance and how what’s unspoken can do a lot of damage. These themes and this family’s multi-gen story will give you and your book club quite a bit to talk about. Perhaps you can even discuss the book over a delicious slice of West Indies cake?
Use our Black Cake book club questions to get your conversation going. We’ve got 10 Black Cake discussion guide prompts and some selected reviews featuring a range of opinions. And if you liked Black Cake, keep scrolling because we’ve got a few suggestions for your next great read.
Black Cake Synopsis
(We always chose to provide the publisher synopsis because we feel that it’s worthwhile to discuss whether the official book description actually squared with your experience of the book.)
Black Cake, Charmaine Wilkerson
We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.
Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?
Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.
Black Cake Book Club Questions
These questions have been tailored to this book’s specific reading experience, but if you want more ideas, we also have an article with 101 generic book club questions.
- “B & B, there’s a small black cake for you in the freezer. Don’t throw it out […] I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.“
And with that opener, you know you are in for a ride. Did you have any preconceived ideas of when the time would be right? Were there moments in the story when you thought it was time for the cake, but then the siblings waited?
- Covey/Eleanor was a resilient survivor and yet she also held back some very hurtful secrets. Where did you land with her? Did you admire her resiliency? Did you judge her lies?
- “Sister? What sister? […] does every couple keep secrets this big from their children?”
Marble’s existence threw quite a twist into the story. How did you feel about it?
- “What does Benny expect? She took an argument and turned it into a Cold War”
This from Byron, who didn’t understand Benny’s choices. For that matter, nor did Eleanor and Burt. How did you feel about Benny? What was holding her back from re-engaging with her family? Why couldn’t she return a phone call? Did she wait too long? Why was she so reluctant to sell her artwork?
- Multiple times, Byron describes his own reluctance to commit. We get his point of view, but what do YOU think is really behind Byron’s lack of commitment.
- From Covey/Eleanor “Sometimes, the stories we don’t tell people about ourselves matter even more than the things we do say.”
What did she mean by this? And do you agree with her?
- This is largely Eleanor’s story, and the backstory is told in her own first person voice. But the POV shifts between first person to second and third person narratives, featuring other characters like Lin, Pearl, and Bunny? Why do you think that Wilkerson chose to narrate that way? Did it work for you?
- “Had Byron’s parents ever told the truth about anything”?
Well, that’s a good question. But there are lots of lies and secrets flying around this story and no character is innocent of them. Which of the lies and secrets did you find the most compelling or interesting? Which ones frustrated you?
- The book is full of quite a lot of “what ifs” and regret about running out of time. Can you think of some instances like this in your own family? Do you feel the tick tock of time? Is there a “what if” that nags at you?
- In the afterword, Wilkerson says that it was her own familiarity with Caribbean food and black cake that led to this book. She speaks about the emotional weight carried by recipes that get handed down. Do you have these sorts of traditions in your family? And so, what do they say about your family’s history?
Selected Reviews for Black Cake
“This book approaches so many sensitive issues, which were handled adroitly with care without targeting to give us full bombardment of messages.”
“There are books with characters who have issues that are woven organically and subtly into the plot. And then there are issue books. Unfortunately, this one reads like the latter. Multiple coincidences drive the plot forward and the author indulges in the “kitchen sink” style of storytelling, with every possible social issue thrown in for dramatic effect, bordering on the ridiculous and causing some eye-rolling from this reader.”
“The story is about loss, about the decisions we make that we can never take back, the sacrifices we are forced to make. It’s a reminder that sometimes our stubbornness gets in the way of a happy life. But it’s also about being a survivor. It’s a powerful, moving story on a personal level. But it’s also an important story on a universal level as Wilkerson writes about racial identity and what it means to be black in America.”
“The book felt like it jumped all over the place which made it hard for me to keep interested in it. The chapters being told in different timelines and by different characters just didn’t work well for this book.”
3 Books Like Black Cake
Black Cake was a featured pick in Jenna’s Today show book club. If you liked the vibe, we have the complete list of Jenna’s selections, with ratings and a synopsis. For more on the experience of Black women in London, try our guide for Girl, Woman, Other. If you’re keen on more secrets and mommy issues, try our The House of Eve discussion guide.
The Vanishing Half, Brit Bennett
This is a good comp if you liked Black Cake‘s elements of racial identity and siblings who take very different paths.
Identity–whether we are born into it, or whether we choose it for ourselves–is at the heart of Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Although the intertwined lives of the characters span time and generations, all of the characters grapple with the powerful pull of the places they come from and the families who made them who they are.
This complex family story will help your group reflect on the powerful issues of race, class, and gender. And we’ve got you covered with these book club questions for The Vanishing Half.
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
How about some more siblings, but this time with some “what were they thinking” parents?
When Danny and Maeve’s father dies, he leaves everything to their estranged step-mother. She kicks them out, and with that, the once wealthy siblings are forced to make their own way in the world. But the house remains a looming anchor in their relationship.
The book’s themes feature abandonment, betrayal, damaging silences, revenge and a lot of sibling loyalty.
For those who like audio, Tom Hanks does a great job with narration.
Use our discussion guide for The Dutch House.
Distant Marvels, Chantel Acevedo
And for some additional storytelling from the Caribbean….
In 1963, as hurricane Flora bears down on Cuba, elderly Maria Sirena is forced into shelter with a motley crew of other reluctant women. They wait out the dangerous hurricane while Maria tells the story of her family’s involvement in the third war of Cuban independence.
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