Though she lives in Quincy, Wendy Francis still harbors pride in the Midwest, not to mention a passion for kringle, the delightful, sugary confection she was introduced to by her uncle.
Her bond to the region showed up in the career of the Wisconsin native, who studied at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and at Harvard University.
"When I was . . . an editor at both Houghton Mifflin and Da Capo Press earlier in my career, I was always looking for good women's fiction set in the Midwest, as I've always loved literature that is tied to a sense of place,'' she said in an interview. "I love the warmth of community and rhythms of life found in the Midwest, so I always knew my first novel would be set there."
Her debut novel, "Three Good Things," examines the lives of two sisters in a small town in Wisconsin. Ellen and Lanie McClarety are 16 and 8 when they lose their mother, and they learn to rely on each other during difficult times.
After her divorce, Ellen opens a bakery that features the Danish pastry kringle. As she begins to emerge from her troubled marriage, she is drawn to a gentle, recently widowed man who frequents her shop. But one day, her past unexpectedly appears and threatens to undo her budding romance.
Sibling Lanie is struggling to balance marriage, a law career, and parenting her year-old son. Amid the stress, she begins to have doubts about her life, and suspicions about what's keeping her husband at work for many a late night.
As the sisters navigate these challenges, they turn to each other and to words of wisdom from their mother: "At the end of every day, especially the difficult ones, be sure to always remember three good things that have happened."
Though Francis skillfully portrays the emotional impact of losing a mother, her own mother is living near Racine, Wis., and they remain close.
"Since my mother was only 21 when she had me, I sometimes think of our relationship as resembling more of younger and older sister relationship,'' she said.
Francis added, "My mom really served as inspiration for both the mother in 'Three Good Things' as well as for the relationship between Lanie and Ellen, because she was always there as my cheerleader, my support, and my confidante."
To Francis, the sisters balancing myriad issues — including divorce, marriage, career, and the anxieties of new motherhood — is a metaphor for her beloved kringle, in that "one must achieve the right balance of dough, sweet filling, and icing, with no one element overwhelming the other."
In her own life, Francis acknowledged, there have been some dark moments that threatened her equilibrium, such as the difficult birth of her now 4-year-old son Nicholas, who was born unable to breathe on his own.
This traumatic experience was at the forefront of her mind when writing the novel, and "in becoming gravely ill myself during the birth, I thought how difficult it must be for a child to lose its mother," Francis said. "I was really lucky that my mother was there, and she was strong, and she insisted we'll just get through this together."
Indeed, researchers studying resiliency have found that adults who manage to deal with life's challenges are typically buttressed by positive, encouraging connection to others.
While some readers will think "Three Good Things'' is mainly for women, Francis hopes that her audience, male and female alike, will take away her message about the importance of a mother's love, family and friends, and the value of not allowing any single element of life — such as work — to overwhelm any other.
"In the end, I hope the book itself is a tonic, a break from all the crazy hecticness of life, and offers inspiration to find balance in life,'' she said. "But, if not, then at least remember to leave room for kringle."