© 2019 Claire Ward
“Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette supposedly said of the people too poor to buy bread, and the words inspired revolution. The Choice throws that on its head, and makes it rallying cry — LET US EAT CAKE! Set in a dystopian Britain where an insufferably invasive and cloyingly matronizing government headed by Mother Mason has turned everyday life into a misery. The Choice examines how the choices that individuals make enable tyranny — both at the polls and in their lives, as rebellion can begin from the smallest of personal stands. It is a strange mix of Betty Crocker meets 1984, where technocratic control, a saccharine tyrant in pearls, and intense social pressure create an environment depressingly familiar. A most unusual dytstopian novel (it has an award from Good Housekeeping), The Choice strikes a chord.
Set in Britain, the book picks up seven years into the reign of Mother Mason, who was elected on a Health and Decency platform. The circumstances of her rise to power are a little murky, but she’s a literal Health Nazi: sugar and alcohol are verboten, and people who skip leg day at the gym are abducted at the grocery store and taken away. At that grocery store, certain articles like butter are strictly rationed, and to gain access requires submitting to a weigh-in, where agents of the state consider weight and the person’s fitbit activity before permitting them their pat or two. The state is incredibly, obnoxiously intrusive, using deliverymen to spy on people’s homes looking for smuggled-in sugar, constantly pushing citizens to narc on errant behavior, and — above all — forever hectoring, nagging, advising. People are infantalized and treated like toddlers, especially as the book wears on and the main character becomes a rebellious baker.
The Choice has an unusual protagonist in Olivia Prichard, who in another life was an accomplished baker, cake artisan, and small business owner but who now malingers as a frustrated housewife, with no outlet for her creative energy. I appreciate the perspective, though, because Olivia’s plight demonstrates how tyranny and government stupidity affects the common man and woman down to the household level; it also raises the stakes, since unlike Winston Smith Olivia has children who the state can threaten to seize from her if she doesn’t comply. Raising money to smash the state — “Cut the Apron Strings” — through a bake sale is an amusing mix, seditious and wholesome at the same time. Although some aspects of the worldbuilding are unrealistic (the economy of Britain is entirely too healthy given the measures in place ), I like Ward’s twist.