Author Name & Publisher: Alysia Constantine (Interlude Press)
Publication Date & Length: February 4, 2016 – 246 pgs
Not every love story is a romance novel.
For Jules Burns, a lonely baker, it is the memory of his deceased husband, Andy. For Teddy Flores, a numbed-to-the-world accountant who accidentally stumbles into his bakery, it is a voyage of discovery into his deep connections to pleasure, to the world, and to his own heart.
Alysia Constantine’s Sweet is also the story of how we tell stories—of what we expect and need from a love story. The narrator is on to you, Reader, and wants to give you a love story that doesn’t always fit the bill. There are ghosts to exorcise, and jobs and money to worry about. Sweet is a love story, but it also reminds us that love is never quite what we expect, nor quite as blissfully easy as we hope.
Love, loss, grief, joy…and chocolate! This is such a beautiful story. Awkward and tender, gentle yet thoughtful, I fell immediately in love with both Jules and Teddy. I loved the slow build up and the exquisite baking.
Teddy and Jules meet through glimpses, words and bakery treats. Jules can write and he can bake but he is still mourning the loss of his husband and suffering from almost paralysing social anxiety. Teddy is very sweet, but a little grey and lacklustre when we first meet him.
The delicate flirtation is wonderfully written. The romance builds sweetly and subtly, the relationship builds on a witty exchange of words worthy of Jane Austen if her characters were to post and respond to baking blog.
Without giving much away, this is a beautiful, unusual story. I have a few reservations about the supernatural element in the second half of the story, but it really doesn’t detract much from such a pleasurable read.
“Speakerphone. Put me on speaker so you can use your hands. You’re going to need both hands, and I won’t be held responsible for you mucking up your phone. Speaker.”
Teddy set his phone on the counter and switched to the speaker, then stood waiting.
“Hello?” Jules said. “Is this thing on?”
“Sorry,” Teddy said. “I’m still here.”
“It sounded like you’d suddenly disappeared. I was starting to believe in the rapture,” Jules said, and Teddy heard, again, the nervous chuckle.
Their conversation was awkward and full of strange pauses in which there was nothing right to say, and they focused mostly on how awkward and strange it was until Jules told Teddy to dump the almond paste on the counter and start to knead in the sugar.
“I’m doing it, too, along with you,” Jules said.
“I’m not sure whether that makes it more or less weird,” Teddy admitted, dusting everything in front of him with sugar.
“It’s just like giving a back rub,” Jules told him. “Roll gently into the dough with the heel of your hand, lean in with your upper body. Think loving things. Add a little sugar each time—watch for when it’s ready for more. Not too much at once.”
Several moments passed when all that held their connection was a string of huffed and effortful breaths and the soft thump of dough. Teddy felt Jules pressing and leaning forward into his work, felt the small sweat and ache that had begun to announce itself in Jules’s shoulders, felt it when he held his breath as he pushed and then exhaled in a rush as he flipped the dough, felt it all as surely as if Jules’s body were there next to him, as if he might reach to the side and, without glancing over, brush the sugar from Teddy’s forearm, a gesture which might have been, if real, if the result of many long hours spent in the kitchen together, sweet and familiar and unthinking.
“My grandmother and I used to make this,” Jules breathed after a long silence, “when I was little. Mine would always become flowers. She would always make hers into people.”
Teddy understood that he needn’t reply, that Jules was speaking to him, yes, but speaking more into the empty space in which he stood as a witness, talking a story into the evening around him, and he, Teddy, was lucky to be near, to listen in as the story spun itself out of Jules and into the open, open quiet.
When the dough was finished and Jules had interrupted himself to say, “There, mine’s pretty done. I bet yours is done by now, too,” Teddy nodded in agreement—and even though he knew Jules couldn’t see him, he was sure Jules would sense him nodding through some miniscule change in his breathing or the invisible tension between them slackening just the slightest bit. And he did seem to know, because Jules paused and made a satisfied noise that sounded as if all the spring-coiled readiness had slid from his body. “This taste,” Jules sighed, “is like Proust’s madeleine.”
They spent an hour playing with the dough and molding it into shapes they wouldn’t reveal to each other. Teddy felt childish and happy and inept and far too adult all at once as he listened to the rhythmic way Jules breathed and spoke, the way his voice moved in and out of silence, like the advance and retreat of shallow waves that left in their wake little broken treasures on the shore.
Only his fingers moved, fumbling and busy and blind as he listened, his whole self waiting for Jules to tell him the next thing, whatever it might be.
1) Favorite thing about building your own world?
I’m going to deliberately misunderstand this question. I know I’m probably being asked about my favorite thing about imagining a world for a story, but “building your own world” means something quite different to me. Living as a gay person means, often, very consciously choosing your family, since the family with which one grew up may not understand you or support you. So the world-building I think of is that step so many of us take—and queer folk very often—to collect a “family” of people we love, trust and respect. “Building your own world” also means really carefully considering what is important to you, what kind of life you’d like to lead, what you will do and who you will do it with. What is both terrible and wonderful about being queer in a straight family and culture is that scripts aren’t often already written for you, so you have to decide from scratch what your life will be, and how you will lead it. This was especially true before legal marriage became an option for gay people in the U.S. This is, of course, an opportunity available to everyone regardless of their sexuality, but queer folk often get this “opportunity” thrust upon them, while others might never even suspect they could take such an opportunity for themselves. Perhaps this is something that straight culture can learn from us queers: everything is—or can be—a conscious decision. That’s really what it means to build a world, isn’t it?
2) What inspired you to write your first book?
Sweet came about for a number of reasons. First, I was itching to write something. Second, once I discovered the narrator’s voice, I started to get ideas about storytelling and expectations. Third, I kept myself inspired by looking for pastry recipes. Each recipe I decided to use spoke to me about a particular tone, a set of ideas, a mood. That led me to write a chapter that would respond to that. I was pressed ahead, though, by the questions I started considering about stories and storytelling and love, and how those ideas fit with being gay. Love stories are so ubiquitous in our culture, but queer people have been locked out of them for so long. I was inspired to think about what would happen to the genre of love story if it were written by queer folks. Does being gay change anything? A lot of people like to make the argument that gay people are just like straight people; I don’t agree with that, necessarily—we live very different lives, and we live often with the fact that our love is often interpreted as dangerous, or a challenge, or simply sexual, or irrelevant. I like my difference; I think it’s made me into a pretty good person who’s made very conscious choices in her life.
3) Do you have a specific writing style?
I think I tend to think about the music of the language I’m writing. How it sounds is important to me, and the sound is part of the meaning. I also tend toward the descriptive, almost baroque in style. I like run-on sentences, as long as they still make sense; I like complicated clauses and lines that couldn’t be read in one breath even if you were an opera singer.
I like messing around with word order to suit my purposes, even if it’s ungrammatical. My favorite poet is John Berryman, if that is at all telling. (“Dream Song #29” just ruins me with how brilliant it is: “But never did Henry, as he thought he did,/ end anyone and hacks her body up/ and hide the pieces, where they may be found./ He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing./ Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up./ Nobody is ever missing.”)
4) Who are some of the authors that influenced you to write?
The authors I loved when I was young made me want to write—writers like Rohld Dahl, Edward Gorey, Shel Silverstein and Daniel Pinkwater were fun and weird and made me laugh. I liked how Gorey combined drawing and writing. Madeleine L’Engle entranced me with her plots and her strange characters and weird situations; her novels are still a comforting home to me, I like to read them over and over. Writers I read and loved when I got older, like Audre Lorde, Suzan-Lori Parks, John Berryman, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Pynchon, Tomas Tranströmer, those people scared me. I want to write like them, but know I probably will never get there. So I waver between feeling inspired by them and feeling discouraged.
5) What are some jobs you’ve held? Have any of them impacted your writing? How?
I was a pastry chef/baker for a vegetarian caterer; we worked out of one of the industrial kitchens in a NYC cooking magnet school and I helped to supervise the high school kids who were interning with us. I worked at an independent bookstore and managed their café, serving cappuccinos to people browsing the history section. Both of those jobs informed Sweet in pretty obvious ways, since it takes place in a bakery. When I was in college, one of the jobs I held (I had three) was to write the manual for a computer program that the professors I worked with had developed for doctors to use to give people take-home information sheets about their health problems. I was an editor and a graphic designer for a small company that made the program magazines for the Civic Light Opera (that was musical theater) and other performance companies in Pittsburgh; as part of that job, I had to attend the opening night performance of every musical they performed. This would have been cool, except I really don’t like musicals, so it was kind of torture to sit through a mediocre production of Oliver! or Brigadoon.
Alysia Constantine lives in Brooklyn with her wife, their two dogs, and a cat. When she is not writing, she is a professor at an art college. Before that, she was a baker and cook for a caterer, and before that, she was a poet.
Sweet is her first novel.