The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.
In Part I, Byron and Benny Bennett are two estranged adult siblings who reunite at their mother lawyer's office for the reading of their mother's will after her death from an illness. Benny has been estranged from the family for six years, since Thanksgiving 2010 when she came out as bisexual to her family. Their father, Bert Bennett, died a few years after that before Benny could reconcile with them. Benny attended the funeral, but didn't say anything to Byron or her mother.
Today, the siblings learn that their mother has left them a black cake (a traditional desert originating from the Caribbean Islands) and a recording which their mother, Eleanor, made prior to her death. The lawyer, Mr. Mitch, also informs them that they have a half-sister.
As they listen to the recording, Eleanor launches into the story of Covey, a girl growing up in the Caribbean in the 1950's. Along with her best friend, Bunny, the two were avid swimmers. Covey's mother Mathilda ran a bakery with the assistance of her mother's helper, Pearl. Covey's father, Lin, was the son of a Chinese immigrant who ran two small shops on the island. However, Lin was also a gambler, a habit that damaged the family's finances and eventually drove Mathilda away.
When Covey turns 16, she meets Gibbs Grant, a surfer, and falls in love with him. The two are inseparable and make plans to leave the islands together someday. Around that time, however, there is a fire that damages one of Lin's shops. Lin's financial troubles prompt him to borrow from "Little Man" Henry, an unsavory loan shark who is rumored to have once killed a woman who rejected him. Eventually, Little Man's attentions turn to Covey, and Lin's indebtedness to him force him to agree to a marriage between Covey and Little Man, which Covey desperately does not want. Gibbs is leaving to go to school in London and tries to convince Covey to sneak away with him, but Covey tells him she'll figure something else out.
When the wedding day arrives, Pearl poisons the top layer of cake (which the couple brings home) and decorates with lilac flowers (which Covey dislikes) to let her know. But during the toasts, Little Man chokes and dies, and Covey disappears. Covey then secretly finds Pearl who gives her some money that her mother had left her and the contact information for a woman Mathilda knew who can help Covey get off the island.
By fall of 1965, Covey is living in London under the name Coventina Brown and working as a nanny, though she later becomes Eleanor Bennett. On the islands, it's assumed that Covey murdered her husband and fled. In the recording, Eleanor mother reaffirms that she is Covey and that the story she'd told them about growing up at an orphanage is a story she borrowed from someone else.
Interspersed with Eleanor's explanation of her past, in present day, Benny reflects upon her life path. In their family, she and Byron were expected to be high-achieving to garner influence and professional opportunities. However, Benny dropped out of her elite university after getting beat up by two (gay) women for being a "traitor" for flirting with a guy. Benny then enrolled in art school and met her ex, Joanie. Joanie later broke up with her and moved to New York, and Benny followed Joanie to New York in hopes of reconciling. In recent years, Benny has been in an on-and-off relationship with a guy named Steve. Benny now hopes to open up an art cafe (cafe that also sells art) someday, but her applications for loans from the bank have all been rejected.
We also learn that Byron has an ex, Lynette, who has recently broken up with him. Also, while Byron is successful, he doesn't feel entirely fulfilled by his work since he's more of a spokesperson and media figure than a proper scientist. He has applied for a director-level position with his company (which would allow him to do more substantive work), but has been passed up twice.
In Part II, Eleanor continues the recording with the story of Eleanor "Elly" Douglas. Elly was raised in an orphanage and met Covey in London when they were both employed as nurses. Elly convinces Covey to leave London with her so they can pursue other dreams (Elly hopes to be a geologist), but they take a train that crashes and Elly is killed. When someone assumes that Covey is the one who died, Covey doesn't correct them, knowing that it's an opportunity to leave her past as a murder suspect behind. Instead, Covey takes on Elly's identity, going by Eleanor Douglas.
Meanwhile, on the Islands, they hear about Covey's death. Bunny is saddened to hear of the death, since she'd been a little in love with Covey in addition to being her best friend. Bunny has continued swimming since Covey left. Bunny was dating a guy named Jimmy and left him to be with a woman, Patsy, though she soon learned she was pregnant with Jimmy's child. Bunny ended up moving to England to continue her career as a distance swimmer along with Patsy as the two raised Bunny's son and Patsy's younger brother.
As "Eleanor Douglas", Covey moves to Scotland and takes a job doing office work. Things are going smoothly until one day, her boss rapes her. Eleanor soon leaves that job, but finds out she is pregnant. She takes refuge in a shelter run by nuns, but they eventually force her to adopt out her baby, who she named Mathilde (named after the woman who had helped her leave the island). A few months later, Eleanor spots Gibbs Grant. Despite knowing she should be cutting ties with the past, she calls out to him. Gibbs decides to give up his own past and changes his name to Bert Bennett so they can be together. (So, Gibbs and Covey became Bert and Eleanor Bennett.)
In Part III, in present day, Byron thinks about how his mother in her last few years seemed reckless and upset. (Flashbacks reveal that Eleanor had been upset over the absence of her first daughter.) Meanwhile, in those final years, Benny had wanted to reach out and had written a letter explaining to her mother what had happened with her at university and she apologized for not patching things up sooner. Benny had only sent the letter recently. She thought that she'd sent the letter too late (that her mother had passed away by then), but as they listen to the recording, Eleanor reveals that she'd gotten the letter, and she expresses regret at not being able to support Benny through her difficulties.
Another flashback reveals that even after their estrangement, Benny's father Bert had continued keeping tabs on her and even visited New York occasionally to see how she was doing, but he kept his distance thinking that she wasn't ready to reconcile. Unfortunately, Bert had died unexpectedly and was never able to reconcile with his daughter.
A different flashback discusses how in February 2018 (a year or so before Eleanor's death), she had gone to a talk being given by Etta Pringle, a famous long-distance swimmer. Etta is revealed to be Eleanor/Covey's childhood friend, Bunny. At the talk, Eleanor had discreetly told Etta that she goes by "Eleanor Bennett" now and lives in Anaheim.
Part IV introduces the character of Mabel "Marble" Martin. She is an "ethno-food guru" who has recently published a book on traditional food and how the "diaspora of food, just like the diaspora of people, has helped to shape many cultural traditions." Today, she is appearing on a television show and she talks about black cake and its origins. Black cake originated as a Christmastime fruit cake in Britain, but transformed into a rum cake when it was brought over to the Caribbean.
In a flashback, we learn that Marble was adopted by her (white) parents, Wanda and Ronald Martin. They never told Marble about the adoption, but she is slightly darker skinned than them and she suspects as much. In present day, Marble gets an e-mail from Eleanor's estate asking to meet with her. (In another flashback, we learn that before she died, Eleanor had recognized Marble, who looks like her, from a TV segment and had considered reaching out, but she didn't because she didn't want to reach out only to tell her daughter that she was dying.)
Meanwhile, back in California, Benny thinks about how she didn't go talk to Byron and her mother at her father's funeral. While they think she didn't show up, she actually did show up, but Steve is physically abusive towards her sometimes and had gotten violent with her the day before the funeral. Benny had wanted to talk to them, but didn't want them to notice her injuries. In present day, the lawyer Mr. Mitch also gives Benny some of her father's files, and Benny sees the receipts indicating that her father had gone to New York a few times to keep tabs on her.
In present day, Byron also gets back in touch with his ex, Lynette, (He attends a vigil for her nephew after her nephew faced an incident of police brutality.) He learns that she is pregnant with his child, and she wants to know how involved he wants to be. Byron thinks about it and realizes that he has never been good at showing the people he loves that he cares about them, and he wants to do better.
A short while later, Marble makes her way to California to meet Benny and Byron. It goes smoothly until Marble learns about her father (who assaulted Eleanor), and she leaves without saying goodbye. She ends up listening to Eleanor's recording along with her parents though, and eventually returns to California. When the three siblings are reunited once again, together they finally eat some of the frozen black cake that Eleanor left for them.
Inside the cake, they find a photograph of Covey, Gibbs and Bunny together. They also find some trinkets belonging to Elly. The trinkets turn out to be valuable old coins (a flashback reveals that they were stolen by a slave from her master and buried, and the slave left behind when she escaped. Elly then dug them up 200 years later.
Together, the siblings decide that it's time to go back to the island and find out what happened with their mother's murder charge. Before going back, they go to find Etta Pringle/Bunny. She recognizes who they are because Marble looks like a fair-skinned version of Covey and the other two siblings look like Gibbs. Then, all four of them travel to the island and go to visit Pearl.
They also go to see Eleanor/Covey's father Lin, but the meeting is brief since Byron gets mad at Lin for how he treated Covey. Lin is now wealthy after having finally given up gambling, making some money on the black market and having made some good investments in the stock market. Lin has a stroke as a result of the meeting, but he survives.
After all these events, Byron is inspired to take control of his life and to be a proper husband and father to Lynette and their child. He also sues his employer who he believes had unfairly promoted a less-qualified white man over him and uses the settlement to start his own consultancy company. Meanwhile, Benny has been getting more art commission lately and a illustration she did of Etta has gone viral. Benny also stops responding to Steve's calls and she flirts with a different man -- while she doesn't know if it'll work out, it makes her realize that she's open to love again.
In the final sections of the book, we learn that Covey had shown up to Bunny's place, distraught, after learning of her forced marriage with Little Man. The book hints that on the wedding day, Bunny had stolen the poison bottle that Pearl used for the cake and had used it to poison Little Man's champagne, which is what killed him during the toasts. The book ends with the three siblings scattering the mixed ashes of Covey and Gibbs into the sea along with the rest of the black cake their mother left them.
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The story opens with a policewoman holding part of a wedding dress after something tragic has taken place.
Now: 2019. Chapters 1 – 11
In 2018, following the death of their mother Eleanor Bennett, siblings Byron Bennett and Benedetta “Benny” Bennett, 37, reunite at their mother’s lawyer’s office. Benny and Byron have not spoken to each other in 8 years due to a falling out.
Byron is a black man who works as an ocean scientist. He is currently involved with a project to map the sea floor and who is known for his presence on social media. He was dumped not too long ago by his girlfriend, Lynette. Meanwhile, Benny has recently been fired from her call-center job in New York.
At the office, the lawyer, Mr. Charles Mitch, informs them that their mother has left the siblings (who she refers to affectionately as “B and B”) a recorded message and a “black cake” for them in the freezer. The recording opens with Eleanor encouraging the two to find a way to repair their relationship. Mr. Mitch explains that she specifically asked that they listen to the recording together. They agree to reconvene later that afternoon to listen to it.
Eleanor had been sick for a while before she passed away last Friday. Byron hadn’t told Benny about their mother’s illness, but was finally forced to call her when Eleanor died. Byron has since made the funeral arrangements.
Later that day at Eleanor’s house, Benny thinks about the fight she had with her late father, Bert Bennett, when she revealed the she was bisexual, which was the final straw that resulted in her estrangement from the family eight years ago. As she thinks about how she misses her parents, her on-again-off-again lover Steve calls her. She originally met Steve right after her breakup with her ex, Joanie.
When Mr. Mitch arrives, the three of them sit down to listen to the recording. Eleanor starts by telling them that they have another sister.
Then. Chapters 12 – 16
On the recording, Eleanor story flashes back to over 50 years ago (in the 1950’s-60’s), with a girl named Coventina “Covey” Lyncook living in the Caribbean Islands. Covey’s mother, Mathilda, runs a “small but popular” cake business, assisted by the family helper, Pearl. One day, Mathilda disappeared and didn’t come back.
Covey’s father, Johnny “Lin” Lyncook, was the son of a Chinese immigrant who had opened two shops called Lin’s Dry Goods & Sundries, a business which Lin later took over. As an adult, he was an alcoholic who liked to gamble on cockfights. Lin had done well on his betting when he was younger, but the introduction of steroids to the birds led to a long losing streak, resulting in Mathilda becoming increasingly disgruntled and leaving. Still, as Covey grows up, Lin continues to gamble and lose money.
Covey met her best friend Bunny (the daughter of Covey’s father’s friend, Uncle Leonard) at swim class when they were young. Covey was a stronger swimmer, but Bunny had more endurance. They both shared a love of swimming, liking to swim in the bay nearby despite other people warning them of the potential dangers. When they are 16, Covey convinces Bunny to sign up for a competitive harbor race, and they proceed to spend many afternoons training for it. Covey dreams of being recruited to swim abroad, and she hopes that swimming will be her ticket away from the island.
Soon after turning 16, Covey also meets Gilbert “Gibbs” Grant, a surfer, who shows her how to surf and they talk about their hopes and dreams. Gibbs wants to study law, while Covey dreams of going to university in London. Eventually, they start to talk about their future together. Meanwhile, Bunny has clearly developed romantic feelings for Covey, which Covey does not reciprocate.
Then. Chapters 17 – 20
At home, Lin starts to think that Covey has gotten too wild. When Covey refuses to stay home and stop going out swimming in the sea, Lin threatens her with his belt as punishment, but doesn’t actually hit her. In September 1963, a advisory for Hurricane Flora, set to hit the Caribbean, is issued to the public when Covey, Gibbs and some friends are out in a boat in the sea. As the waters swell, Lin realizes that Covey is not at Bunny’s house as she claimed to be. Instead, he and Uncle Leonard find her out in the sea with Gibbs. Lin is furious and grounds Covey for a month.
A month after the incident, some of the town’s stores, including the one belonging to Lin, is set on fire. It was in retribution towards one of the “chiney” (Chinese) owners. An employees had asked for her wages, and the owner had beat her up in response. It wasn’t Lin, but Covey overhears him saying how that owner is causing trouble for all the other merchants in the area.
There are a number of Chinese merchants in the area, though the bad behavior of local merchants regardless of race is well known among the populace. Clarence “Little Man” Henry, for example, is a local business owner who is known for being violent and causing trouble. A dead body found up the coast was said to have been a woman who refused Little Man’s advances.
As for Lin, with his business up in flames and him having squandered his money on his various vices, Lin knows he is in over his head since he has no way to repair his circumstances.
Now: A Piece of Home. Chapters 21 – 31
In present day, Benny wonders about the relevance of the story they are hearing and reminisces about her mother making black cake with her. She also thinks about her rift with her family, with the final fight happening two years before her father passed away (six years ago). In Benny’s mind, though, the rift had started long before that with Benny deciding to leave her elite university to pursue a art degree and take cooking classes, despite her parents’ disapproval of her life choices. Byron was the one who had made all the choices they approved of. Benny hopes to someday open a café, selling some food items and her mother’s black cake in the winter.
Benny then thinks about the message she got from her mother a month ago, saying “Benedetta, please come home”. She wishes she would’ve gone home then, but she didn’t realize that her mother had been sick. Byron didn’t call her until it was too late. Her mother had left her messages from time to time during the rift, occasionally updating her with news, but she had never asked Benny to come home until then.
The incident that prompted Benny to finally drop out of university at 19 was getting beat up by two girls who had seen Benny flirting with a guy. The women (who were gay) called Benny a traitor for flirting with a guy. After leaving school, Benny enrolled in an art program and met Joanie, who was ten years older than Benny. A few years into their relationship, Joanie decided that Benny was suffocating her and decided to leave Benny and move to New York.
In present day, Byron gets a call from his ex Lynette, but he rejects the call. He recalls how they’d worked together on a documentary that he had been the host of, but after it was over they’d begun fighting about the future.
When they take a break from listening to the recording, Byron and Benny get into an argument about what caused the rift. Benny says that they “rejected” her, but Byron says that Benny walked out on them. Benny thinks about that day on Thanksgiving in 2010 when she’d finally told her family about her sexuality and her father had called her “indecent”. Benny had then walked out and left.
A short while later, Benny had moved to New York in hopes of reconciling with Joanie and hadn’t even bothered to give her family her new address. In the time after Benny’s move to New York, Byron had become a media darling and popular guest on late-night shows and the news, talking about the world’s oceans, mapping the sea floor and ocean sciences in general.
In present day, Lynette calls again and this time Byron answers. It’s been three months since they last spoke. Lynette tells him she wants to get together with him to discuss something.
Byron thinks back to the time when Benny had quit college and declined to explain to then why. He had encouraged her parents to just “give her some time” to figure things out, but he’d still been surprised when Benny then enrolled in art school. She used to discuss decisions like that with him, but at some point their relationship had changed.
In present day, as Benny and Byron continue listening to the recording, they settle into more of a comfortable politeness towards each other. Neighbors have been coming by with casseroles to express their regrets, and Byron suggests that they serve the excess food after the funeral tomorrow. On the news, there’s a Frenchman that is attempting a major swim, the progress of which his mother had been tracking diligently. Byron recalls how interested his mother had been in swimming, so much so that he’d taken her to a talk being given by Etta Pringle — a famous female swimmer — last winter.
Then: Mummy and Pearl. Chapters 32 – 43
Pearl’s black cake had been the best in town and Covey’s mother Mathilda had been able to make icing flowers that were “second to none”, resulting in her mother having an extensive list of bakery clients and some savings prior to her disappearance. Her mother made some important friends because of it, and one of Mathilda’s customers was the one to help her get off the island when she decided to leave her family. Pearl continued working for Lin partially to watch over Covey. Later, another one of their clients would end up helping Covey when she needed it as well.
In the spring of 1965, Covey’s father tells her that he’s invited Clarence “Little Man” Henry, a ruthless moneylender, to their house. After the fire at the store, Lin’s gambling had continued and his debts grew with it. He ended up turning to Little Man to borrow money. Lin says that Little Man wants to “court” Covey, and he asks Covey to just “humor” him. Covey knows that Little Man means trouble and wants nothing to do with it.
Soon, Little Man starts showing up at their house regularly. By now, Lin’s store has been fully refurbished. One day when Lin isn’t around, Little Man lets himself in when the front door is unlocked. Little Man starts getting aggressive with Covey. When he mentions Gibbs, Covey worries that Little Man might do something to Gibbs. Little Man also tells Covey that the titles to Lin’s stores now belong to him. The next day, Lin tells Covey that Little Man wants to marry her.
When Gibbs hears about Little Man’s plans to marry Covey, he urges her to go to England with him, since he’s leaving in two weeks to go to school. However, Covey reassures him that he should go first and she’ll figure out a way to make it over there after him.
In August 1965, Covey and Little Man are married. As part of the deal, Lin is let off the hook for some of his debts to Little Man. Pearl bakes a black cake for the wedding. She thinks about how Mathilda had left some money and promised to send for Covey at some point, but never did. By now, Mathilda had been gone for 6 years. Pearl had stopped hearing from her four years ago (though Covey was unaware they were in contact at all after Mathilda left.)
Pearl knows she needs to find a way to get Covey away from Little Man. She decides to poison the top layer of the cake — the part that the bride and groom will take home with them — and she pipes lilac flowers over the poisoned area since she knows Covey hates to color lilac. When Covey sees the cake, she’s momentarily confused, but soon understands. By 4 o’clock that afternoon, Little Man is dead, and Covey has disappeared.
The police soon arrive to question Lin and a search commences for Covey. Bunny, Pearl and others gather to look out at the choppy waters, searching for signs of Covey. They watch as a storm approaches, and Bunny feels certain that Covey would have known there was no way she could have swam away. Instead, Bunny tells Pearl that she thinks she knows where Covey might be hiding. Pearl, in turn, gives Bunny some supplies, money and the name of a woman who can help Covey (presumably, this is one of Pearl and Mathilda’s former clients). She says to give Covey the stuff and to tell Covey to only speak to that woman.
By the Fall of 1965, Covey is now 18 and living in London. She’s going by Coventina Brown, using her mother’s surname, and working as a nanny for someone that Pearl had put her in touch with. In exchange for one year of work, Covey would be given passage to Britain and forged documents affirming her citizenship. The situation had been arranged by someone Covey knew as “Mrs. Eunice” who impressed upon her how attempting to reach out to her past, including Gibbs, could put everyone involved at risk.
Instead, Covey meets some other island women who had come from the Caribbean and befriends them. After Covey completes her nannying obligation, she enrolls in nursing school. She thinks about reaching out to Gibbs, but she also worries that doing so will somehow put herself or him in danger. Instead, she goes to his campus frequently, both wanting to find him and afraid of finding him.
Now: Mrs Bennett. Chapters 44 – 46
In the recording, Eleanor Bennett says to her children that they’ve probably figured out by now that she is Coventina Lyncook, who later became Coventina Brown in England and eventually Eleanor Bennett. Listening to her say this, Byron says he needs a moment, so they take a break from listening.
In the kitchen, Benny is reminded of her mother pointing to the black cake and telling her that “this is your heritage”. They’d grown up thinking that their mother had been orphaned at a young age. In the recording, her mother explains that she borrowed that story from a girl she’d met later.
Then: Elly. Chapters 47 – 65
Eleanor “Elly” Douglas is a young girl who ends up at an orphanage being raised by nuns after her parents had passed away. At the children’s home, Elly finds herself fascinated by what she’s able to dig up from the dirt outside — dirt, shells and rocks.
In Spring of 1961, Elly cuts her foot on a 300-year-old gate in the sand that was part of the remnants from an old city that had once been destroyed by a tsunami. The cut results in an an infection and hospitalization where she is tended to by a nurse who tells Elly about opportunities in Britain for nurses. Elly thinks of nursing has her chance to go abroad, work as a nurse and then apply to study geology, which is what she really wants to do.
Six years later, Elly meets Coventina “Covey” Brown as she is finishing up nursing school. When Elly is 21, Covey bakes her a black cake for her birthday. Elly tells Covey about her dream of becoming a geologist. As part of the nursing school agreement, they’re supposed to stay here to work, but Elly wants to leave so she can pursue her dreams. Elly tries to convince Covey to go to Canada with her and they take the train to leave.
However, the train that Elly and Covey are on is in an accident, and Elly doesn’t survive. When the nurses think that Covey is the one who died, Covey goes along with it and starts going under Elly’s identity. As a result, Covey becomes Eleanor Douglas. “Coventina Brown” is reported as dead. Elly had received an offer of employment from a trading company doing office in Edinburgh work prior to her death, which Covey goes forward with under Elly’s name.
By now, it has been two years since Covey fled the islands after Little Man choked on his champagne at the wedding and died. Lin is still running the shops that Little Man’s family owns. Everyone assumes that Covey killed Little Man. Lin laments his decisions in life and decides to kill himself by walking out into the sea, but he’s saved by two boys.
Afterwards, Pearl tells Lin that someone — Short Shirt Higgins — tried to kill Little Man’s brother, Percival Henry, who now runs everything. Higgins is someone who used to work for Little Man. However, Little Man developed an interest in Higgins’s sister and beat her and left her for dead when she rejecting him.
Now, in 1967, Higgins had been caught putting poison into Percival’s drink. The police think that perhaps Higgins is also responsible for Little Man’s death — which means Covey is no longer the main suspect. Around town, people wonder if perhaps Short Shirt killed Little Man and Covey simply took the opportunity to escape. (In actuality, Short Shirt was out of town that day.) Pearl starts to hope that Covey can someday return home, and she tries to reach out to Covey, but she soon hears the news that Covey died in a train accident. Gibbs Grant hears about the news as well and is heartbroken.
Bunny is also distraught when she finds out that Covey is dead. Bunny has continued swimming after Covey left. Bunny goes on to date a guy named Jimmy, who ends up dying in a country bus accident. She soon gets together with Patsy, who is the first female policewoman in their area, and Bunny realizes that she’s definitely gay. As they prepare to move to England together (with Bunny continuing her career as a distance swimmer), Bunny discovers that she’s pregnant (from before Jimmy died).
In Scotland, Eleanor Brown (who is actually Covey) get settled into her new job. Things are going well until one day her supervisor comes on to her and sexually assaults her. The next day, he acts as if nothing had happened. Soon, Eleanor quits her job and realizes that she is pregnant.
It’s now 1970, and Eleanor travels back to London where she’s given a flyer for unwed and pregnant mother needing help. She ends up at a shelter that is run by nuns. After Eleanor has the baby, the nuns give her a paper to sign (which presumably relinquishes her parental rights), and before she can protest, her baby is taken from her. Eleanor tells herself that she will find the baby one day.
Later, she’s at a grocery store when she happens to come across Edwina, who lived at the same boardinghouse she’d lived at when she was a nurse and still going by Coventina Brown. However, instead of saying hi, Eleanor turns away, determined to leave her past behind.
Then, a few months later she spots Gibbs and can’t resist calling out to him. (The narration indicates that they then proceed to spend the next 40 years of their lives together.) Gibbs (whose full name is Gilbert Bennett Grant) wants to be Covey, so he soon changes his name to Bert Bennett and proceeds to cut ties to his own past. And so Gibbs and Covey become Bert and Eleanor.
Now: Byron. Chapters 66 – 67
Hearing the story, Benny feels sad for her mother and what she had to give up. Byron feels conflicted by the things he never knew about his parents. He also thinks that he’d sensed that something was going on with his mother in the last year and a half, but he hadn’t tried to understand why.
One Year Earlier: Etta Pringle. Chapters 68 – 76
One year earlier, in 2017, Etta Pringle (the famous black swimmer that Eleanor had gone to see last winter) goes home to her hometown in the Caribbean to receive a medal for her accomplishments. She notices the Henry boys in the crowd and thinks about how they’re trouble.
In California, Eleanor is on her computer following along on news about Etta’s career. Feeling nostalgic for home, Eleanor goes to a small shop that sells imported foods from the islands. There, a woman is doing an in-store demonstration on how to make black cake. The woman talks about how black cake represents a mixing of cultures and how the Europeans brought foods over which the people in the islands used to make black cake. Eleanor thinks about how she longs to go home and to take her three children with her.
When she gets home, Eleanor considers telling Byron the truth about her past, but she worries how he might see her differently if he knew the truth. Eleanor thinks about how she gave up her first child and the regret she feels over it. She thinks about seeking out her first daughter, but she knows the girl — now a middle-aged woman — would want to know about her father, which is a story Eleanor is reluctant to tell. Eleanor also thinks about how she’s still possible wanted for an unsolved murder.
With Bert having been gone for five years now and filled with regrets, Eleanor now goes out on a longboard, looking for an accident. Instead of dying though, she ends up hospitalized with pins in her legs and some cracked ribs. Afterwards, Byron tells his close friend Cable about his mother’s accident, and Cable suggests that perhaps Eleanor has a death wish since it’s known to be a dangerous place to surf. Byron initially dismisses the suggestion, chalking it up to his mother’s boredom now that his father is gone, but after thinking about it more he starts making more of an effort to spend more time with his mother.
Over the course of that year (his mother’s last year), his mother heals up and her mood seems to improve. Byron continues with his work, which includes going to schools to talk to students as a motivational speaker. He encourages them to pursue their dreams even if they don’t have a role model that looks like them within their field.
Meanwhile, around a year before her mother’s death, Benny attends an alcoholics anonymous meeting (though it doesn’t seem like she’s actually an alcoholic). At the meeting in front of the crowd, she unloads about everything like her breakup and her fractured relationship with her parents. She doesn’t return, but being able to talk about everything seems to have some type of benefit for her.
After the meeting, Benny finally calls home, but no one picks up. Instead of trying to call again, Benny decides to bake two black cakes and photograph the process to send her mother along with a letter. In the letter, Benny starts by expressing regret at not going to talk to her mother and Byron at her father’s funeral. Benny then writes about Steve and about what happened in college and she apologizes for trying to patch things up sooner. However, by the time Benny worked up the nerve to send the letter it was already August 2018.
Now: Mrs. Bennett. Chapters 77 – 81
On the recording, Eleanor addresses the high expectations she and their father had for them. She talks about wanting opportunities for Benny, how effortless school seemed for her and how it seemed like she was throwing it all away. Eleanor then mentions that she’d been able to read Benny’s letter before she passed. She expresses regret at not knowing all these things before and not being able to support Benny through it all. Byron fells betrayed finding out that Eleanor and Benny had been in touch and that he’d been out of the loop.
As they listen to the recording, Byron notices Mr. Mitch getting emotional, and Byron realizes there may have been something going on between Mr. Mitch and his mother. Charles and Eleanor had been dating for a while before her death. They’d met platonically through a mutual acquaintance of him and Bert’s, and when Eleanor asked to consult with him after Bert’s death, they’d developed a romantic relationsship. After her surfing accident, Eleanor had confided in him about her past and about her missing first daughter.
Then: Bert. Chapters 82 – 87
In the early 1970’s, Eleanor and Bert move into a home near Anaheim, California, with Bert working at a rubber plant and Eleanor working for the government doing administrative services. Bert eventually became an attorney, and Eleanor had gone into accounting.
After Byron and Benny were born, Benny was the one who showed an interest in baking. As a result, for a few weekends each winter, Eleanor cordoned off the kitchen for just her and Benny to bake black cakes for the holidays.
On Thanksgiving 2010, Bert had been upset with Benny’s admission to them, thinking about all that he’d sacrificed just to raise a daughter who had given up her opportunities in life and who couldn’t make up her mind about her sexuality. He’d been planning on talking to Benny after he’d calmed down, but by then Benny had left and never came back. A year later, he’d gone looking to keep tabs on her a few times on the East Coast, but hadn’t gone to talk to her, not knowing he’d be dead soon. On the day of Bert’s funeral, Benny had attended and seen her mother and brother there, but didn’t say anything.
On February 27, 2018, Eleanor attends Etta “Bunny” Pringle’s talk in Anaheim. As Etta talks, she thinks about her old friend Covey. Bonny had moved on after Covey’s death with Patsy, and they’d had a son with Patsy and had raised Patst’s younger brother as well. Still, she sometimes thinks of Covey. Today, Etta notices a woman who reminds her of Covey. Afterwards, the woman comes to talk to her and she realizes that it’s really her. She wants to call her afterwards, but doesn’t have her number. She only knows that her name is now Eleanor Bennett.
2017: Marble. Chapters 88 – 91
Marble Martin is an ethno-food guru who has recently published a book on traditional foods. On a television show, she explains how her book talks about how the “diaspora of food, just like the diaspora of people, has helped to shape many cultural traditions”. She brings up the example of black cake. Black cake originated as a Christmastime fruit cake in Britain, but transformed into a rum cake when it was brought over to the Caribbean.
Marble discusses the mix of cultures that went into the cake and how in Britain it is made with cane sugar, which originates in Asia. In the Caribbean, it is made with raisins and currants. Marble makes the argument that anything with cane sugar can’t be considered truly “traditional” unless it’s an Asian recipe, since since sugar comes from Asia. On the show, she discusses this with Renzo Barale (a.k.a. Coffee Man), a coffee tycoon who owned a company called Caffé Top. Afterwards, Renzo suggests that they get together again at some point.
Many years ago, Marble started off as “Mabel” and had begun collecting her book of recipes as a “labor of love”. She considered herself a “art-history-scholar-turned-food-expert”. As she began booking television engagements, she’d met an older Italian man who she’d married and had a son with. Her husband had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. Now, she is a single mother and has started dating the coffee guy.
After the TV episode with Renzo, Marble gets called into the office of George, CEO of the media company. He says that an important viewer of theirs is upset about her stance that nothing containing cane sugar can be considered traditional unless it’s an Asian recipe. George asks her not to take such strong stances about these things, saying that it’s “political commentary”, since he doesn’t want their viewers to feel uncomfortable.
After that conversation, Marble thinks about how she should write a whole book just about sugar. Soon, Marble goes home to the UK where she goes to visit her parents. Her mother, Wanda Martin, looks on with interest as Marble works on her book about sugar.
Then: Because Money Talks. Chapters 92 – 98
In the winter of 1969, Wanda and Ronald Martin, a well-off London couple, adopt a baby. While they were both white, the baby looked like she was likely mixed-race. Mabel also grew up to be quite tall, unlike her parents. While her parents never told her about being adopted, Mabel had suspected as much. When her son Giò (Giovanni) turned out to have slightly darker skin despite her husband being blond with two pale-skinned parents, it reinforced that thought as well.
Finally, one day, Mabel gets an e-mail from an American law firm and she suspects that it has something to do with her biological parentage.
Now: Mrs. Bennett. Chapters 99 – 103
A few years before her death, Eleanor came across a picture of a chayote, a vegetable she remembered from her childhood on the Islands. She then watched a video of a woman talking about it, who looked just like a younger version of herself — she recognized that the woman was her missing first daughter, who she had named Mathilde. She saw that Mathilde was now named Marble Martin and was able to Google her for more information.
Eleanor wanted to contact her daughter, but knowing that she had already gotten her prognosis, she was unsure whether to do so. She was reluctant to reappear in her daughter’s life, only to tell her daughter that she was going to die soon. She eventually called Marble once, but didn’t end up saying anything and hungs up.
Now: Inheritance. Chapters 104 – 143
In present day, Benny listens to her mother on the recording talk about feeling “like a ghost” after Bert/Gibbs passed away since there was no longer anyone around who knew her real past. Benny feels sad, knowing that she and Byron weren’t “enough” for their mother. Meanwhile, Byron looks up Marble Martin online out of curiosity about his half-sister. He then looks at the black cake that his mother left for them and the note with it that says “I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right”.
Byron thinks about how his mother raised him to “dress with respect” and to be educated and ambitious. He thinks about what he’s doing now as a camera-ready public figure talking about environmental issues and wonders if he is “doing right by them” and if his work is making any sort of difference.
The next day, at Eleanor’s funeral, Benny holds on to Byron’s arm. Afterwards, at the reception, Benny reflects on her own journey and feeling like an outsider due to her mixed race and sexual orientation.
In the past, when Steve has called when they were on-and-off, Benny had eventually picked up. When she sees that he has called again, Benny knows she won’t be taking his calls again. Benny also finally tells Byron about what had happened to her in college (getting beat up) and about her relationship with Steve. She tells him about how Steve had gotten physically violent with her at times, and her being injured due to his physical abuse is why she didn’t go up to talk to Byron and her mother at their father’s funeral — she didn’t want them to see what had happened.
Upon her telling Byron all this, he apologizes for how he’s acted. It reminds Benny of being six years old and knowing that she’d always be safe with Byron.
Afterwards, Benny goes into her mother’s closet and leafs through a National Geographic about someone free-solo-ing El Capitan (a dangerous mountain climbing thing), and she thinks about she had no idea her mother was into stuff like risky or dangerous adventurous activities. She then dredges up some old memories of her mother being a little reckless when it came to surfing, but her parents never seemed too concerned about it.
Benny also thumbs through an envelope of stuff from her father’s files — including receipts and records of his travels — that Mr. Mitch had given her. She learns that even though she and her father hadn’t spoken after Thanksgiving 2010, her father had never stopped keeping tabs on her.
On the recording, Eleanor admits that she didn’t even tells their father about her first daughter. Instead, she kept that episode of her life to herself, in fear that he would judge her if he knew. Eleanor talks about how at times she felt that she’d brought unhappiness to herself by “refusing to accept the life that others had expected me to live” and later she realized that it was how she had made Benny feel by not accepting her life choices.
After the reception, Byron brings up to Benny a time when their family had gone fishing at an artificial lake, which turned out to be a surprisingly fun day. He remembers how his father had referred to his mother as (what he thought was) “lovey”, but which he now realized had been “Covey”, her real name. As the two siblings reflect on this memory, they hug with tears in their eyes.
In the kitchen, Benny finds her mother’s old black cake recipe, noting how there’s no amounts listed on the recipe. She thinks about how what she “learned from her mother was to rely on her own instincts and go on from there”.
Byron soon gets a call from a sobbing Lynette, who explains why she wasn’t able to make it to his mother’s funeral. She tells him that she and her nephew Jackson were stopped by police for a busted tail light. Lynette is distraught since the cop pulled his gun out on them and arrested Jackson. Online, a video recording of the incident has gone viral. Byron immediately leaves to go see Lynette, who is at a vigil that is a response to the incident. Lynette explains that the vigil is for all the people who had these types of police interactions but weren’t lucky enough to survive it as Jackson did.
At the vigil, Byron sees that Lynette is clearly pregnant, and he realizes that was probably what she’d been trying to contact him to tell him about. Afterwards, Lynette tells him that it’s a boy and that he can think about how involved he wants to be in the baby’s life. The next morning, Byron thinks about how he doesn’t know what she wants from him that that he has “been getting it wrong for years, not quite knowing how to be there for the people he loves”.
When Marble hears from a lawyer representing “Estate of Eleanor Bennett”, she suspects what it is about. Before responding to the lawyer, Marble knows she needs to go home to London to talk to her parents, Wanda and Ronald Martin. When they see her face, Wanda knows that Marble (who is 50 by now) has learned the truth.
A short while later, Marble Martin is on her way to the United States to meet Benny and Byron. Benny is on her way back to California to meet up with them when she’s approached by a woman at the airport lounge. The woman sees Benny drawing a picture of a peineta (a Spanish hair accessory) and gives Benny her card, saying that her company is looking for an illustrator.
When the three meet up at Eleanor’s house, Marble is surprised to see all the photos of a woman (Eleanor) who looks just like her. Marble finds herself feeling a little resentful of Byron and Benny, knowing they got to grow up with their mother while she didn’t. As the three of them chat, they talk about Marble’s son Giò. Byron thinks back to five years ago when there had been tremors from an earthquake and Eleanor had demanded that he rescue a jar of preserved fruit (needed to make black cake) before hunkering down for safety. In present day, Byron goes to get the jar of fruit and before long, Benny and Marble are in the kitchen inspecting the jar and making notes about its contents.
The next day, Mitch meets up with Marble and what she learns (presumably about her father) is difficult for her. Afterwards, Benny and Byron are supposed to meet up with Marble again, but she doesn’t return their calls. Two days later, they learn that Marble has returned to the UK as she shoots them an e-mail saying that she needs time to process everything. At Eleanor’s house, Byron and Benny eye the black cake their mother left them. They know that this black cake was meant to be eaten with Marble, so they leave it alone and Benny returns to New York.
In New York, Benny works on making black cake and makes her best one yet. Benny recalls Marble’s advice for how to convince the bank to give her a loan (which she was previously rejected for) to open her café, and she brings a piece of the black cake with her to the bank as she details out her plans and asks the bank to reconsider her loan. As Benny waits for an answer from the bank, she takes a job working in costume as the mascot of a local electronics store. She meets a man who seems interested in her. Even though she doesn’t know how things will play out, the interaction is notable because it indicates her “openness to try love again”.
Back in the U.K., Marble talks over what she has learned about herself with her adoptive parents. She plays the recording for her mother and then for her father as well. In it, Eleanor talks about how grateful she is to Marble’s parents for raising her to become the woman she is.
A full month after their initial meeting, Marble returns to California and the three siblings finally sit down together to eat their mother’s black cake. As they cut into the cake, they hit something hard and see that there’s a jar inside containing a photograph. The photo is an old one of their parents along with the famed distance swimmer Etta Pringle. It’s labeled with the names Gilbert Grant, Coventina Lyncook, and Benedetta Pringle. Benny realizes she was named after Etta.
In the jar, there’s also some cockle shells which they realizes must’ve belonged to Elly, the woman who “unwittingly” gave their mother “a chance at a whole new life”. The jar also contains a note that says “THE BOX”. Benny and Byron think that maybe their mother wanted them to give Marble the box of trinkets which they used to play with as kids (which they now realize must’ve once belonged to Elly). When they show Marble the trinkets, Marble (who once studied art history) notes that these things are gold coins, likely fished out from an ancient shipwreck, that are probably very valuable.
(The book explains that in 1715 there was a shipwreck that was looted by pirates, which they unloaded at Port Royale. 20 years later, a runaway slave couple (including a woman who had been impregnated by the master of the plantation) flee from captivity. The woman doesn’t have time to take with her the gold coins (stolen from her master) that she buried in the dirt and she leaves a comb buried as well. 200 years later, a young Elly digs these treasures up.)
The three siblings debate whether to come forward with the coins given that their mother is still linked to a murder. Finally, they decide they need to go back to the island to determine what the situation is with the murder.
A short while later, Etta/Bunny is at an auditorium to give another talk. She is supposed to meet Covey/Eleanor there today. The last time she was there, she had recognized Covey who had told Etta she now went by “Eleanor Bennett” and had hurriedly told her that “I found him, Bunny. I found Gibbs. We changed our names. We had children. We live here”. Etta had then followed up by asking her assistant to find Eleanor’s number, and they’d set up a time to meet up again.
Today at the auditorium, Etta notices a young man there who looks just like a young Gibbs Grant. With him are two women, one of whom looks like a version of Covey with paler skin. Benny tells Etta that their mother got sick and passed away. They give Etta a letter from Eleanor, thanking her for her friendship and asking her to meet with Mr. Mitch.
Meanwhile, back on the island, Pearl is a great-grandmother. Bunny/Etta, who is 73 now, comes back to visit from time to time. Today, Bunny shows up at Pearl’s house with three people, and Pearl knows immediately who they are. Seeing that the kids look like a mixture of Covey and Gibbs, she realizes the two must’ve found each other and managed to raise a family.
As for Lin, he did manage to become wealthy once he gave up gambling and invested his money in the black market and on stocks and bonds. By now, he is married to his third wife and he has two step kids. Through a private investigator, Lin learned that Covey was alive and living with Gibbs. He’d been inspired to track her down after seeing a video of Marble online, who he was certain looked just like Covey, though he’d never reached out to Covey.
Recently, Bunny has contacted to let him know that Covey passed away not too long ago from an illness. Bunny tells Lin that Covey’s three kids want to meet him (though actually it’s because Eleanor had left instructions for Bunny to introduce them to their grandfather). When they meet again, Bunny regards Lin coldly. Byron is also unenthused about meeting Lin, knowing how his recklessness affect his mother’s life. Quickly, the meeting goes awry with Byron accusing Lin of “selling” his daughter to a criminal, and the three siblings soon leave. After they’re gone, Lin suffers a stroke, though he survives.
Back home in SoCal, Byron is inspired to take control of his life. He calls Lynette finally to talk. He also tells Mr. Mitch that he needs to hire a lawyer who is skilled in workplace discrimination litigation. Byron has been passed over twice for a director position at his workplace, which he thinks he is the most qualified candidate for. Byron thinks he wants to get back to doing science instead of just being a media darling, so he’s determined to get that position.
A short while later, Byron meets with Marc, the man who ended up getting the director position he’d been angling for. Marc is hostile towards him, since he knows that Byron has met with a lawyer to discuss his legal rights based on his “failure to promote” claim. Their interaction is cut short by a call informing Byron that Lynette is in labor.
The baby boy is soon born, which Lynette decides to name after Byron.
Benny ends up getting turned down for the bank loan again, but she’s been getting more commissions for her artwork lately. She also did a piece depicting Etta which has gone viral.
In London, Gio asks to go to California for the summer before college to visit his aunt and uncle. Byron and Benny meet Gio and Marble at the airport.
At Mr. Mitch’s office, with help from Pearl, he looks into tracking down Covey’s mother, Mathilde. In a flashback, we learn that Mathilde had made it to North America and had been working at as a domestic worker. In 1961, She’d gone to visit some waterfalls near the Canadian border, but had slipped and fallen and died. It was years later until they found the body.
In 2019, Etta Pringle gives a talk about the environment and sustainability along with Byron, who has recently started up his own consulting firm using the settlement he got from his legal claim against his prior employer. Afterwards, Byron joins Lynette (who he is back together with) and their son.
Then: One Summer Night. Chapters 144 – 147
Flashing back to the summer of 1965, Bunny recalls Covey showing up at her house late one night, distraught after learning about being forced to marry Little Man.
On the day of the wedding, Pearl had poisoned the top layer of cake and then found that the small bottle of poison had gone missing. After Little Man collapsed during the toasts, Pearl would continue to wonder what happened to that bottle of poison.
After Little Man’s collapse, Covey had slipped out during the commotion. Many years later, when Bunny is asked by Covey’s children whether she thinks Covey killed him, Bunny would tell them firmly “no” and that “there were any number of people who had wanted to see Little Man dead”.
Instead, on that day it was a wedding guest, a young lady, that had taken Pearl’s bottle of poison and found a way to discreet slip it into Little Man’s champagne glass.
(Note: The book basically hints that Bunny is the one who stole the bottle and poisoned Little Man’s drink.)
Now: Rest In Peace. Chapter 148
Later, Bunny and Byron ask Mr. Mitch for his assistance in getting permission to exhume their father Bert’s remains. They then have him cremated and mix his and Covey’s ashes together. Along with Marble, they go out to sea and then scatter the ashes along with the remainder of their mother’s black cake into the water.