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Book club questions for Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson takes an in-depth look at this impactful novel about family, heritage and secrets. There will be spoilers so for more context about the story, check out my spoiler-free review first.
This is a great novel. One of those that will no doubt be on those best of 2022 lists at the end of the year. There’s just some novels you know have it—the ones that leave a lasting impact. I finished Black Cake a couple days ago and I’m still thinking about it. Fantastic all around.
The story is in development as a Hulu original series produced by Marissa Jo Cerar, Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Films), and Kapital Entertainment. So excited for that!
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean 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.
Book Club Questions for Black Cake
- Let’s first talk about the famous black cake recipe. How does food and family recipes help connect family? Does your family have a recipe that has been shared throughout the generations?
- Why did Eleanor decide to leave this recording revealing all her secrets to her children? In your opinion, why did Eleanor wait to tell Byron and Benny the truth until after she passed away?
- How would you react if your parent left behind a similar recording?
- How did learning about their mother’s past, including her real name and the fact they have a sister, change their perception of what they know?
- A portion of the novel is set in the 1960s in the Caribbean where young Covey is abandoned by her mother and is raised by her Chinese father, who is a gambling addict and not very present in her life. We meet Covey’s best friend, Bunny, and also her boyfriend, Gibbs. What was your impression of Covey’s life there and how did it shape who she became?
- Because of his debts, Covey’s father makes a deal with the head of the local gang, Little Man, that he can marry Covey. But at the wedding, Little Man drops dead and Covey frees the island with help from Bunny. Did you think Covey was behind Little Man’s murder? What was your reaction that it was Bunny all along?
- Covey eventually makes her way to London and hopes that she’ll find Gibbs there. Let’s talk about Covey’s journey in London and her friendship with Elly.
- A train accident takes Elly’s life and in a panic, Covey eventually assumes her identity for fear that the island would learn she was still alive. So essentially Covey is erased in many ways. How important is a name to one’s identity?
- As we read about Covey, now Eleanor’s journey, we also are following Byron and Benny as adults. Both are very different as Byron is a successful and famous biologist but Benny is struggling a bit trying to find her footing. Why do you think both turned out so different as adults?
- Benny was estranged from her family after she tried to talk with them about her sexuality. Because of stubbornness on both sides, they never got the chance to forgive each other before both parents passed away. What do you make of her parents reaction and the fact they never reconciled?
- We learn that Eleanor was assaulted and had a child she was forced to give up. Let’s talk about this revelation.
- Marble is in fact Eleanor’s daughter and her parents who raised her hid the truth of her heritage. But Marble takes a keen interest in the historical context of food. In what ways is Marble similar to Eleanor, despite never knowing her?
- What happens next for Byron, Benny, Marble and Bunny now that the truth has been revealed?
- The story explores how one’s choices can be passed through generations. What are your thoughts about this?
Hope you enjoyed book club questions for Black Cake! Here are some more recommendations along with links to book club questions.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
When I read Black Cake, in some ways, it reminded of Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane. This is another epic but also quiet study on a family.
Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, rookie NYPD cops, are neighbors in the suburbs. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the explosive events to come.
In Mary Beth Keane’s extraordinary novel, a lifelong friendship and love blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next thirty years. Heartbreaking and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes is a gorgeous and generous portrait of the daily intimacies of marriage and the power of forgiveness.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
If you haven’t read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, now is the time! Go out and get this book and start reading it tonight.
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?
Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.
As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.