“Sometimes I come up with these little recipes… like, gender recipes. For how I want to look or feel that day.” I may be an agender cupcake, but I have to live in a world where most things have been flavored with gender. Even when I was little, I mixed and played and had fun with those flavors. I showed up to second-grade picture day in a pink shirt with neon yellow suspenders and a blue plaid tie. I made it through most of eighth grade in big unlaced work boots, black tights, and overall shorts. And then there’s my baking uniform: guys’ baggy jeans, a binder or sports bra under a fitted t-shirt, and a bright sunny apron.
“Gender recipes,” Harley echoes. “That’s very Syd of you.”
“I’m sorry, it’s ridiculous, I know.” […]
“It’s not ridiculous,” Harley says. “It’s true.”
Premise: Baking is Syd’s passion, and, like with all creative outlets, feelings end up poured into the work alongside the butter and flour. When Syd is dumped by a long-term girlfriend, Syd’s immediate coping mechanism is to bake a batch of brownies. But Syd’s heartache infuses the chocolatey treats, and everyone who eats them—including many patrons of the queer-owned community space and bakery where Syd works—quickly goes through their own horrendous heartbreak. Syd embarks on a quest to undo the delicious but disastrous damage, slowly figuring out that not everything in life, identity, and romance has a strict recipe.
Rainbow representation: an agender protagonist, a demisexual non-binary love interest, and not a single straight person in the entire multitudinous background cast save for Syd’s lovey-dovey parents.
Content considerations: brief allusions to historical homophobia
A.R. Capetta’s The Heartbreak Bakery is a rainbow confectionary delight. Interestingly, it deals with a lot of the same themes as The Lost Coast—queer history, yearning for belonging, the importance of community and finding people who Get You, all with magic interwoven—but with an entirely different atmosphere. Where Coast was dreamy, dark, spooky, Bakery is sugary bright and sunny sweet. It’s a little queer love story as well as a love letter to queer spaces and queerness in general. With so many delicious food-filled moments. So many. If you have a sweet tooth, it will get you good.
As if perfectly melted and mixed, magic blends with the everyday to create a story that’s soft and whimsical. Syd’s ability to infuse baked goods with strong emotions isn’t treated matter-of-factly or as something normal, per se, but the novel also doesn’t feel the need to linger on the logistics of it or explain at length where it comes from. It’s an accidental magic: when Syd is miserable, or apologetic, or frustrated, or lovelorn (or horny) those feelings get kneaded into the brownies, pies, scones, and cakes constructed in the middle of that emotional fog.
It got me to consider baking as an artform, a creative outlet, in ways I hadn’t really thought of before. Like any art, your situation and your emotional state pours out into the content you’re making, and the people engaging with that content—whether reading it, looking at it, playing it, or in this case eating it—will pick up on that and be drawn into their own version of those feelings.
Syd’s attempts to wrangle the power for specific goals and gains often go awry (teaching Syd a valuable lesson about not, you know, deliberately manipulating people’s emotions and relationships with spellbound food). That conversation between artist and art-receiver has to happen organically and sincerely or the magic will go kaput.
There is a great sincerity to this book. It captures Syd’s naivety in ways that make Syd endearing and realistic, and it draws you into the fizz and colour of its setting and convinces you why Syd loves it so much. It paints a picture of a queer-friendly wonderland of comfy bakeries and dancing halls and polyamory brunches, populated by a diverse mix of personalities and relationships. Some of these summertime scenes under their sherbet sunset skies made me nostalgic for experiences I’ve never had and places I’ve never been.
Of course, all this is in service of upping the stakes: this paradise is always under threat from gentrification and hipsters. All the more reason for Syd to rush to repair the relationships split up by those magic brownies… though as Syd discovers, it’s not always so simple. This has a happy ending, though (maybe a little sweet and cheesy and a little rushed, but hey, I like sugar and cheese), and one bundled with the happy certainty of uncertainty.
You may notice I’ve deftly avoided using any pronouns for Syd throughout this review. Syd is still figuring out the whole gender thing and which pronouns, if any, suit. Throughout the novel, Syd doesn’t use any pronouns (something the first-person POV allows for neatly), though towards the end tentatively tries out she/they… while acknowledging that it won’t necessarily stick. Syd’s love interest, Harley, switches between “he” and “they” depending on the day/scene, the appropriate pronoun signalled by a badge or sticker. Another character announces that they use “all pronouns”, and indeed the pronouns used to describe that character shift throughout the scene, sometimes changing within a single paragraph.
The text itself incorporating this process is a really cool way to naturalise it for readers, presenting it no-fuss as simply part of the narration and thus as the narrative “truth” of the story world. I can imagine this will be a lovely validating (or perhaps eye-opening) experience for readers in a similar place to Syd on their own gender journeys. For me it’s excellent fodder for a thesis chapter, but, well, it’s also a lovely validating experience.
I enjoy, too, how the “answer” or “reward” to Syd’s character development is not a definitive sense of gender identity, but simply a greater feeling of confidence and a sense of place within a community that similarly bucks the usual binary rules. Syd’s chaotic, comedic journey through magical meringue-based matchmaking is fun and rewarding to watch. Syd grows and comes to reconceptualise the framework of so-called perfect romance that had previously taken up so much space in Syd’s heart, and gets a charming new love story with Harley to boot. Overall, The Heartbreak Bakery is just delicious, and if you want a souffle-fluffy, cupcake-sweet read with basically no straight or cis characters in it, give it a bite.
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6 responses to “Queer YA Spotlight: The Heartbreak Bakery”
Oh baking and no pronouns? That sounds like a book for me!
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