This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:
Seventeen-year-old baker Syd is an “agender cupcake” who still has a lot to figure out about love and the literal magic of baking.
Syd (no pronouns, please) has been with the same girlfriend since coming out as queer in middle school. Four years later it turns out the relationship Syd thought was perfect has more cracks than a badly set cheesecake, leading to a drawn-out breakup with W over one painful weekend. As Syd notes, “I think she’s great, and she thinks I like having a girlfriend too much to notice that sometimes she isn’t.”
Still smarting from the breakup and feeling blindsided, Syd does the obvious thing for a teen holding down a job as a baker while finishing high school: try to bake it out with an easy recipe for brownies which “require three things: a single bowl, a sturdy spoon, and a dedication to dark chocolate.”
Syd’s baking catharsis takes a turn when the post-breakup brownies turn out to be magical Breakup Brownies with all of Syd’s anger, frustration, and hurt baked in. Instead of letting Syd process all of those pent-up feelings, Syd has accidentally fed several bakery customers brownies that precipitate their own breakups–whether the breakups are warranted or not. Obviously, Syd feels awful and wants to erase the “special tang of guilt that comes with subtracting so much queer love from the world.”
Things get even worse when Syd witnesses bakery owners–and husbands–Vin and Alec eat the brownies and start fighting too. Every baker knows you have to clean up your own kitchen but now that the Breakup Brownies have drawn the Proud Muffin into their vortex, Syd is even more frantic to correct this magical mistake before it inadvertently causes the best queer bakery in Austin to shut down.
Proud Muffin’s cute bike delivery person, Harley (he or they–it’s always on the pronoun pin, check it first) is surprisingly receptive to Syd’s magical baking confession and, even better, ready to help mend broken hearts across the city. As Syd works through an impressive baking repertoire ranging from Very Sorry Cake to Shiny New Scones, Syd is able to bond with Harley and process the breakup with W while trying to fix all the relationship collateral damage. The only problem is that as Syd’s feelings grow for Harley, it’s unclear if their chemistry will lead to a recipe for romance or more heartbreak in The Heartbreak Bakery (2021) by A. R. Capetta.
Find it on Bookshop.
The Heartbreak Bakery is an ode to the city of Austin, queer communities everywhere, and baked goods in all of their wonderfully varied forms. Fictional locations like the Proud Muffin complement actual Austin locations like Barton Springs and 24 Diner. Syd and Harley are white with a supporting cast that is diverse and inclusive with characters from across BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities showcasing the intersectionality of many identities.
Even as a member of the Proud Muffin’s enthusiastic and supportive queer community, Syd struggles to articulate to friends and family what it feels like to be agender when “every single time [Syd] stared at the mirror and what [Syd] saw screamed back girl.” Now Syd is “pretty sure that no particular body would make sense to [Syd] all of the time” but also isn’t always sure how to explain that to anyone as easily as others share their pronouns.
Each chapter ends with a recipe, sometimes for actual baked goods readers can make themselves like the peach, strawberry, and basil Honest Pie and sometimes for abstract concepts like Today’s Gender or Baby’s First Polyam Brunch. All of the recipes are written in Syd’s distinct, wry narration with witty asides like “Realize you probably should have added the zest earlier, but you’ve been distracted by the presence of a cute baking partner. Realize that everything is going to turn out delicious either way.”
Part romantic comedy and part bildungsroman, The Heartbreak Bakery beautifully follows Syd through the madcap quest to undo the damage of the Breakup Brownies while also unpacking Syd’s fledgling relationship with Harley and Syd’s journey to fully vocalize their identity as agender (with help from freshly baked Agender Cupcakes, of course) and find their people–agender, magical baker, and otherwise.
Possible Pairings: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, Last Chance Books by Kelsey Rodkey, Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher, Stay Sweet by Siobhan Vivian, Simply Irresistible (1999)