After a rough breakup, Syd decides to bake away the pain. Unfortunately for the customers at the Proud Muffin, Austin, Texas’ favorite queer-owned bakery, Syd’s brownies cause everyone who eats them to spontaneously break up with their partners. Relationships fracture throughout the close-knit queer community, the worst one being the gay couple who own Syd’s bakery. Determined to undo the damage, Syd seeks help from the cute transmasc demi delivery person Harley. But mending broken hearts and saving the Proud Muffin from greedy hipster gentrifiers will take more than good luck and magic-infused pie. As Syd explores this whole identity thing, a new romance sparks, old friendships deepen, and questions long avoided finally become clear.
A.R. Capetta is one of my auto-read authors because I know their books will always be emotionally immersive, narratively creative, and extremely queer. The Heartbreak Bakery is no exception. Although the fantasy elements are light, there’s enough magic to enchant even the staunchest fantasy fans. Think of it as an all-queer cross between Practical Magic the movie and The Great British Baking Show. Capetta doesn’t explain where Syd’s magic comes from or how it works, but there is a lovely connection between Syd’s queer journey and Syd’s magical baking skills. There is magic in being queer and a kind of queerness in doing magic.
I love having more nonbinary/gender nonconforming rep in young adult fiction, but much of it tends to be characters who are already out. We don’t often see the questioning and exploring parts. They also tend to be secondary or side characters. Capetta makes Syd the star, but Syd isn’t the only person queering gender in the book. The pages are brimming with gender diversity. We have a character who uses he/they, another character who uses any and all pronouns, and Syd who uses no pronouns but is considering testing the waters with they/them. (Not to mention the variety of sexual and romantic orientations Capetta depictes.)
Too often, media depicts being nonbinary/gender nonconforming as being a specific, narrowly defined thing—just as it tends to present only one way to be asexual. In reality, there are infinite ways to live a non-cis and non-allo life. What Capetta does so well is show the reader that you have choices and, importantly, you’re not locked into choosing just one, that you can have many and change your mind as often as you want. You get to define how you want to exist beyond the binary. Not the media, not the majority, not identity gatekeepers, just you. Your definitions and mine may be different or even contradictory, but as long as we’re both being true to ourselves then that’s all that matters.
I know The Heartbreak Bakery is young adult fantasy, but it was exactly what I, an older Millennial, needed to read at this moment in my life. Like Syd, I’m also fairly new to the whole “opting out of gender entirely” thing. Our situations don’t exactly line up—I’m genderqueer and use they/them pronouns whereas Syd is agender and is still figuring out which pronouns, if any, feel right—but are experiences and feeling are close enough that it at times seemed like someone was whispering my own thoughts, fears, and hopes aloud.
I’ll have been out as genderqueer a year in December, which isn’t long, admittedly, but in that entire time, only one cis person has done a pronoun check or asked which pronouns I wanted for certain social situations. A handful of cis people have eagerly and excitedly embraced my new identity and instantly shifted how they treated me, but most have dragged their feet or outright refused to change. Frankly, the real world is exhausting. Within Capetta’s novel, everyone respects everyone’s pronouns (there are a couple of moments of misgendering, but the offenders do it unintentionally because the offendee isn’t out) and checks in about updates and to confirm which spaces are safe for which pronouns.
I wish people in my slice of the universe were as good about checking pronoun pins as they were in Harley’s. Really, I think that was what I loved most about this book. Sometimes I want to read books where the marginalized characters fight back against oppression, and sometimes I want to sink into a world where they don’t have to. For me, The Heartbreak Bakery was 352 pages of gender identity wish fulfillment.
In my day job, I’m a high school librarian. I’m also the only out queer Black person and the only genderqueer person on campus. Which means I spend a lot of my time both recommending queer books to queer teens but also having big conversations about queerness and identity with teens trying to figure things out. I’ve already pre-ordered a copy of this book for my library for the students who are considering or who aren’t sure yet or who aren’t ready to go public or who just need to hear that they have more options than they thought. They are going to need this book as badly as I did. A.R. Capetta gave me a gift that I can’t wait to share with the gender questioning and gender nonconforming teens in my life.
The Heartbreak Bakery is published by Candlewick Press.
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).