55 pages 1 hour read

Lisa Graff

A Tangle of Knots

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2013

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 2013, Lisa Graff’s A Tangle of Knots is a middle grade mystery/fantasy novel. Set in a world where most individuals have unique talents, the novel weaves together the stories of multiple characters, centering around Cady, an orphan with a Talent (or a unique, almost magical ability) for baking cakes that perfectly match the recipients’ personalities. As the characters’ lives become intricately intertwined, their arcs explore the themes of self-discovery, family connections, and destiny. The novel was nominated for a National Book Award.


Citations in this study guide refer to the e-book edition released by Philomel Books in 2013.

Content Warning: The source material contains depictions of the deaths of parents.

Plot Summary

A Tangle of Knots takes place in a world in which most individuals possess unique abilities known as Talents. Eighteen-year-old Mason Burgess boards a bus for Poughkeepsie, New York. He carries a powder blue suitcase that contains a piece of paper representing his inheritance from his late mother. A mysterious traveling salesman in a gray suit advises Burgess to keep a close eye on his suitcase, but both the case and the man have vanished when Burgess reaches the next stop.

Fifty-three years later, an 11-year-old named Cady has a Talent that allows her to bake cakes that perfectly suit the recipient’s taste. The orphan has lived at Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls since she was an infant. One foggy morning, Cady prepares a cake for another girl’s adoption party. That same morning, a 60-year-old woman has a stroke that takes away her ability to speak, and a hot air balloon crashes into the Asher family’s apartment building. Marigold Asher is a 10-year-old girl who hasn’t found her Talent, six-year-old Will Asher has a Talent for disappearing, and Zane Asher has a Talent for perfectly aimed spitting. The Owner of the Lost Luggage Emporium at 1 Argyle Road in Poughkeepsie steals other people’s Talents. A man named Toby, who works at the Emporium, nearly hits Cady when he drives his truck onto the lawn of Miss Mallory’s Home in the fog. Miss Mallory senses that Toby is meant to adopt Cady, and he realizes that he wants to be a father again.

Cady spends a trial week with Toby, who lives in the same building as the Lost Luggage Emporium. The Ashers move into the building after the hot air balloon accident damages their apartment. The 60-year-old woman also moves in, and people call her V since her identity is unknown. On the last day of the trial week, a man in a gray suit comes to the emporium, tells Cady that people are defined by the way they deal with what fate hands them, and sells a powder blue suitcase to the Owner.

The Owner is Mason Burgess, and he has been searching for the suitcase for 53 years because it contains his mother’s lost peanut butter recipe, which was the foundation of her successful business. The Owner doesn’t notice the recipe when he examines the suitcase, but Cady finds it as though destiny intended for her to have it. She decides to bake a peanut butter cake for the Owner in the hope that it will cheer him up and make Toby more likely to want her to stay. After Cady gives the Owner the recipe, he realizes that his mother had a Talent for making peanut butter and decides to steal Cady’s Talent, which is similar. Toby drives Cady to the Annual Sunshine Bakeoff in New York City before the Owner can enact his plan. Unbeknownst to Toby and Cady, V stows away in Toby’s truck because she suspects that Toby is somehow connected to the man who eloped with her daughter years ago.

Meanwhile, Will Asher hides in a suitcase, and Marigold mistakenly hands her brother over to a mailwoman. The suitcase falls off the mail truck, and Will wanders around town. The man in the gray suit finds him and takes him to the Poughkeepsie Museum of Natural Sciences. Will leaves one of his shoes and his mother’s hairpin at the museum. Marigold and her mother find the objects, and Marigold learns that the hairpin is the bone of an extinct species of bird and that its discovery would be a monumental advancement in the field of paleontology. Mrs. Asher found the bone 11 years ago during a dig in Madagascar and kept her discovery a secret.

Zane finds the Owner’s collection of Talents and gathers them into suitcases. On his way to the pawn shop, Zane gets into a fight with Marigold that culminates in her pushing him into the road. The Owner hits Zane’s bicycle, sending the boy flying and releasing the Talents from the shattered jars. The Asher siblings defend each other from the irate man, who drives off to the bakeoff. The man in the gray suit takes Marigold and Zane to the bakeoff in his hot air balloon. Mrs. Asher finds Will in New York and decides to attend the bakeoff with him.

At the bakeoff, the Owner steals Cady’s Talent, but Marigold knocks it out of his hand before he can absorb it. As a result, Cady’s Talent dissipates into a fog, and everyone in the convention center receives a piece of it. Marigold and Zane see V’s photograph in a book and realize that she is the acclaimed mystery author Victoria Valence. Toby has a Talent for changing his features, and the Owner is his father. In his concern for Cady, Toby shows his true face. Thanks to a photograph of herself as an infant with her parents, Cady recognizes him as her father. The Owner disappears, and Miss Mallory and Toby agree to parent Cady together. Miss Mallory moves into the Lost Luggage Emporium, and the Ashers decide to continue living there. Cady’s Adoption Day party is held a month after the bakeoff. The man in the gray suit shows Cady an unbroken jar containing a Talent. She considers absorbing it or giving it to Zane, and she decides to postpone that decision until after her party.