Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/2
Nothing about depression is sweet. But cake is. Shari Goldhagen’s first young adult novel, 100 Days of Cake, combines mental illness, sweets, adorably immature boys and creepy shrinks. After Molly has a breakdown at her swim meet and is diagnosed with depression, her doting mom decides to bake her a different cake every day for a hundred days. Molly tolerates her mom’s only slightly better than awful baking like she tolerates everything else, from her rebellious little sister Veronica to her social justice cause flip-flopping best friend Elle to Alex, the cute boy she eats lo mein and watches Golden Girls with at the dumpy store, FishTopia, she works at.
Goldhagen’s book is a funny, but honest look at depression in the vein of older YA novels like Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Get Well Soon. However, instead of showing recovery inside the confines of a psychiatric ward, Goldhagen’s novel sheds light on what it’s like to try and recover in the midst of the real world, where Molly feels like everyone has a future but her. Goldhagen’s witty and poignant novel also breaks down the stereotype that all depressed people are suicidal (Spoiler alert: They’re not.). And while some of the scenes between Molly and her therapist can be read as troubling and problematic by some mental health advocates, the book overall takes a lighter approach to these issues, balanced out with well-written and relatable scenes of what it feels like to be depressed.
Molly isn’t exactly the most likable YA protagonist. She’s depressed. She’s unmotivated. She snaps at those around her. But what I loved most about Molly was that through the good and the bad, she felt like a real person. She makes little progress over the course of the novel, but she starts making progress and that’s what battling depression really feels like. Feeling like you ran ten miles to make an inch of progress.
Lovers of likable characters will be out of luck in this quirky book. Alex is the only character that can be deemed likable. But all of the characters have their baggage and issues. That’s what made me love this book, though. All of the characters are messes in their own ways. This is a book about not only facing your own issues but waking up to the problems of those around you and wrangling with tough truths and secrets. That’s part of what kept me flipping through the pages to make it to the end.
For readers looking for a touching representation of therapy, hang in there. I found some of Molly’s scenes to be repulsive (they made my skin crawl) and I had to flip through some of them. However, Goldhagen delivers a healthy representation of mental health recovery in the end. I promise.
For readers looking for strong female friendships, sisters and female relationships in general, this is the book for you. 100 Days of Cake would pass a literary Bechdel Test ten times over. Watching the changing relationships between Molly and her best friend Elle, Molly and her sister and Molly and her mom was one of the greatest joys of reading this story.
Another of my favorite parts about this book was FishTopia, the dumpy saltwater fish store that reminded me a lot of a tiny fish depot on the highway by my house that I visited once. It’s charming in a way and it was fun to read about Molly and Alex watching re-runs of Golden Girls, which is one of my favorite shows too. There’s not much that I love more than films and tv shows from the 80s and 90s so if that’s your thing too, definitely pick this book up.
So what didn’t I like? I wished the mental illness representation was a little more positive. I didn’t like where the Molly and Dr. Brooks story line went. I wish the book was a little longer and meatier, since it felt sparse at times. I wish the cakes for the chapter titles came with recipes. What can I say? I love to bake and after reading this book, you might just want to give it a whirl too.