Lured in by the siren song of dessert — in the title and on the cover — I eagerly grabbed Meg Donohue’s How To Eat A Cupcake and expected a light, fun read. I got that — and a little more than I bargained for. Though it didn’t shake up my world, it was a pleasant diversion with heart.
Childhood best friends Annie Quintana and Julia St. Clair grew up in the same home — albeit in very different circumstances. Wealthy, leggy and popular Julia never struggled to fit in as Annie did, effortlessly striding through life with the help of her socialite parents. Annie, the daughter of a single immigrant, grew up watching her lovely mother, Lucia, care for the St. Clairs as though they were family . . . though the divide was ever-present, even if Lucia didn’t see it that way.
A tussle and family death in high school create a rift between the girls, separating them until Julia returns to San Francisco a decade later. Now nursing their own hurts, the women reunite in pursuit of a common goal: opening and maintaining a cupcake shop. As Julia struggles to plan her wedding to Wes, a handsome and dependable Southerner, Annie crafts delicious confections at the bakery the pair open. But family secrets and old heartaches threaten to ruin everything . . .
So here we have a pair of very unlikely friends: the snobby, spoiled daughter of aristocrats and the savvy, curvy and outspoken first-generation American who was once her partner in crime. Sounds a bit cliche on the surface, I know, and who hasn’t read a book about two friends from different sides of the tracks? But I was pleasantly surprised by How To Eat A Cupcake, though a few points didn’t sit right with me. Let’s peel back the cupcake liner and take a bite.
Initially, Julia is exactly the type of snot I despise: a gorgeous former prom queen who glides through life in perfect high heels. From the get-go I felt like I was on Annie’s “side,” believing without a doubt that Julia was capable of being manipulative and callous. It’s obvious Julia is Going Through Some Things (big, oh-so-mysterioussss things) and Annie is, well . . . not. In Julia’s eyes, anyway. She’s too self-obsessed and delusional to realize other people have invisible wounds, too.
Annie is the tough-as-nails baker chick who doesn’t let anyone — or anything — crack her veneer, though she’s not obnoxious about it. Since losing her mother (not a spoiler; we learn this early on), she’s desperate to reconnect with Lucia — and she’s convinced her mom’s secrets are kept in a recipe book that also functioned as her diary. But, of course, that baby is nowhere to be found.
That’s where the book derailed for me a bit — instead of focusing on the damaged friendship between two women with a lifetime of shared history, we’re presented two “mysteries” to solve: the case of someone vandalizing the cupcake shop they open in the Mission, and the creepiness of some dude who has been lurking around at night. The cases could be linked, we think, and the story dissolves into some sort of “whodunnit?” that felt awkward and out-of-place in an otherwise light novel. About cupcakes.
That’s not to say it was bad. When the truth eventually came out, especially about the hooded lurker, I was surprised — in a good way. Both Annie and Julia make amazing transformations in the story, too, which is broken down by month. Julia’s calculated “way to eat a cupcake” is signature to her character — a type-A planner; an organized control freak who can’t just lose herself in a dessert. By contrast, Annie is the free-wheeling dreamer who has no trouble just biting into a pastry. And I was pleased with how their friendship changed and progressed throughout the novel.
Aside from a few qualms with the mysteries, I read this book quickly and enjoyed the references to San Francisco. It has a definite sense of place — breezy, ritzy California — and plenty of fabulous appearances by chocolate, flour and frosting. I really liked Ogden, too; he’s the hunky farmer supplying organic fruit to the shop. But the story wasn’t a romance, and it wasn’t about “partnering up” every character. The “big reveal” about what’s troubling Julia was no surprise to me, but I still felt for her — and hoped she would work things out with Wes, her globe-trotting fiance.
Fans of foodie fiction and stories exploring the complexities of women’s friendship will find a light, diverting read in How To Eat A Cupcake. Though I wish Donohue had delved even deeper into their shared past and explored the complications of growing up both poor and rich in the same home, it was a good read.
3.5 out of 5!