Meg Donohue’s debut novel, How to Eat a Cupcake (or as my children would say, “Cupcape”*), stars former best friends with a complicated past who enter into a cupcake business together. In alternating chapters, Anita “Annie” Quintana and Julia St. Clair tell their sides of the story. Annie is a 28-year-old, Ecuadorian-American woman who begins the novel by saying, “People frequently make the assumption that I’m unreliable,” due in part to having curly hair, which, “pegs me as unpredictable. Hair, apparently, is the new window to the soul.” She is a baker, whose loving mother sweetened her childhood with passion fruit meringues, empanadas dulces, and coconut flan.
Julia St. Clair, with shiny blond hair that “fell razor-straight and ended bluntly at her shoulders,” is a cupcake connoisseur with her own distinct style of cupcake eating and a personal need to turn Annie’s dream of owning a “cupcakery” into a reality. Julia is the daughter of a wealthy family in the Bay Area that had employed Annie’s mother as a nanny, and so Julia has access to the finances necessary to start the business. She and Annie were as close to sisters as possible without a biological or legal connection, until jealousy, misunderstandings, and time soured their relationship. When the novel begins, a bitter Annie remembers Julia as “the best and worst friend I’d ever known.”
With each chapter, spanning 300+ pages, we learn the contours of Annie’s and Julia’s tumultuous relationship: how they became best friends, how it all fell apart, why they want to reconcile, and what challenges remain in their way. At the heart of the demise of their friendship is Annie’s status as an outsider at an elite prep school of trust fund babies, some of whom targeted Annie during her final year there. Annie suffered through the bullying, the way many teenagers do when schools turn a blind eye and there is little protection under the law. Ultimately, without a hearing, the principal placed Annie (the victim against whom others had made false accusations) on a temporary suspension, claiming the discipline was “for [her] own good.” It was a private school, where, in real life, American students usually have fewer legal protections than they do in public schools because the procedural Due Process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution do not apply.
Overall, I enjoyed Donohue’s smooth, descriptive writing and her sympathetic characters who show both how little and how much people can change over time. While How To Eat A Cupcake includes romantic relationships the way any Chick Lit novel would, the sibling-like relationship between Annie and Julia and the intrigue that forms the novel’s subplot might increase the novel’s appeal to a wider audience. If there is one hair in this otherwise enjoyable cupcake, it would be that parts of it were unbelievable. In particular, the identity of the hooded stranger who saves the protagonist’s life (I won’t say which protagonist) was too much. It felt unnecessary and too coincidental, but it was not annoying enough to ruin the book. I plucked this errant hair out the cupcake and enjoyed the rest.
*I’m pretty sure that I will call these treats “cupcapes” long after my girls have stopped.