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.
Oh my word this book is good.I was dying laughing before the end of the first chapter. I absolutely love how the narrator tells the story and you can feel that voice as you read. The way the narrator interjects into the story was so delightful. It made for a fascinating read. The characters though! Oh my word I want to take them and smish them so hard. Teddy and Jules got off to a slow start but it was beautiful when they got together. They were so awkward with each other it hurt to see in the most adorable of ways. The writing is so completely different it was a joy to read a brand new voice. I hope Ms. Constantine writes more in the future.I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more by this author in the future. I can’t wait to read more by her.
Jules and Teddy together are wonderful. You could feel their emotions come through loudly on the page. The scene where Jules is baking and remembering absolutely broke my heart. ‘Trice is a wonderful addition to the story. She is loud and fun, but very clearly cares for Jules and, eventually, Teddy. She has a heart of gold and I desperately want her to find her George. Or Georgina as it were. Andy-the-dog was a fun part of the story. He was as much a part of this family as any of the two legged humans.
Four and a half
Molly: Today I’m very lucky to be interviewing Alysia Constantine, author of Sweet. Hi Alysia, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Do you have any strange writing habits?
Alysia: I get up and walk away a lot. It looks like distraction, but it’s more like not being able to hold my hand on a hot thing for too long, needing to grab it away and shake off the heat. I stop breathing when I’m really intensely writing, I press my body hard into the activity, think sometimes so hard my head hurts, until I just have to get up and walk away. Sometimes, I’ll pace out into the room where my partner is sitting, minding her own business, reading a book or watching a film, and I’ll circle through the room a couple times like a shark, and then stop in front of her and ask, “Can I talk to you for a moment?” and when she consents, I’ll babble weirdly about what I’m writing as if I need to talk it out, then abruptly leave the room to get a glass of water, then shut myself back in my office to try it again. Sometimes, I just go out to where she is and say, “I need a hug,” like a kid who’s just had a bad dream, just for some physical human contact because my skin feels itchy with needing it. Recently, I walked out of my office, picked up one of the dogs, said to her, “You’re little,” put her down and went back into my office. The poor dog was probably really confused. I guess I go in bursts of concentration, ones I must interrupt somehow with something else.
Molly: Just as your books will inspire others, what books have inspired you?
Alysia: The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde is perhaps the book that’s most impacted me—and a lot of other people—emotionally, politically, intellectually. John Berryman’s collection of poems called The Dream Songs inspired me in terms of its strange beauty, its multiple voices, the rhythm, just the genius of the poetry. When I was younger, I was really inspired by the compact poetry of Lucille Clifton. Judith Butler, who is an academic, wrote a book in the 90s called Gender Trouble that posits that gender is “performative”—it’s not a born-in condition (not the same as sex; “female” is not the same as “woman”), but a result of the way we act in the world. That book has inspired a lot of people, so I can’t claim it as a personal discovery, but reading that in grad school really opened up so much understanding for me about gender and sexuality, and about ontology (“being”) in general. The collections of Edward Gorey’s work are also constant inspirations to me. I love the pen-and-ink drawings (all the detail really appeals to my obsessive nature), I love the weirdness of his mind, the slightly-naughty (dark, perverse, mean) side to his stories, and I love the sheer resistance to “regular” forms of storytelling. A book about Bob Flannigan, the poet and performance artist, was fascinating and inspiring to me, too. I don’t have much interest in his poetry, but his art was really interesting to me—he lived with (and eventually died of) Cystic Fibrosis, and he was also a practicing masochist, and his art often combined provocations from the two experiences to talk about the body, control, pain. I have a hard time looking at some of the images of his performances (he drove nails through his body sometimes), but I find the provocations really interesting. The book was a great introduction to his “body” of work.
Molly: What do you consider to be your best accomplishment (writing or life)?
Alysia: I think I’ve been a good teacher, a good professor. I still have students from more than ten years ago who keep in touch with me. There are a handful of former students of mine who are still in my life, who are sometimes friends and sometimes mentees, sometimes they feel almost like my grown kids. My partner and I often think of them that way, as our “kids.” They make me art, and come talk to me about ideas, or have dinner with me and my partner, or come over to watch a film. They also tell me about good music to listen to, stuff I wouldn’t discover because I’m not a Kid Today. It’s really a lovely and inspiring thing, to be invited into the lives of people in their twenties, people just figuring out their way in the world, who are on the cusp of everything. I feel really happy that I’ve been the kind of professor to whom students willingly return, who look to me for both support/familial-type closeness and intellectual exercise. That makes me really proud, because that is exactly the type of teacher I always hoped to be. Also, it’s win-win, because those relationships keep me engaged, keep me feeling vital, and make me feel really loved and supported. Teaching is so often tough because you don’t always see the results of what you do; learning is residual, and so someone may be inspired in my class to start thinking about an idea, but that may not come to fruition for years and years. So it’s nice to maintain relationships with people who’ve studied with me, because I get to see how that learning develops and becomes relevant in their own lives in ways I could have never predicted. It lets me learn, too, which is so wonderful, such a lucky spot in life.
Molly: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Alysia: My partner and I are currently planning to leave New York City, where I’ve spent most of my life, for the Pacific Northwest. I’m preparing to stop teaching and start different work out there, going back to baking and writing professionally, a life more quiet and slow than one you can lead in NYC. Many of the kids that are in our lives (okay, I keep forgetting: you don’t call folks in their twenties “kids,” but to me they will always be so) are also moving to the same place, so there is hope of building a little community where we land. I’m looking into working with a program for juvenile offenders, too, though I’m not sure in what capacity that would be. In ten years, I hope I’ve settled happily into that: writing, being surrounded by the people I love in a slower, more connected life than I’ve been able to build in this city, but still doing work that feels vital. In essence, what I hope to do is lead a life that makes a world I want to live in.
Molly: If you had a super power, what would it be?
Alysia: This is, weirdly, a question about which I’ve thought a lot. On the one hand, transmogrifying would be cool. I could turn anything into anything, so money or resources would never be a problem for me or anyone else again. On another hand, I’ve thought it would be great to be invisible at will, because then nobody would bother me, and I could do stuff without feeling self-conscious. I used to have dreams, when I was younger, about flying, too. But lately, I’ve been thinking that the power to instantly teleport anywhere would be kind of fun. I think New Yorkers spend so much of their time on the subway, just trying to get places, that we start to hate travel, and for everyone in the world, getting anywhere nowadays is pretty expensive (whether plane, car, train or elsewise), and I’m an absolutely horrible air traveler (I hate sitting still for that long, I get panicky about flying, and security checks feel like a humiliating invasion). So the ability to instantly blink myself over to Ireland, or Bali, or Guatemala, would be really cool. You could go to Italy for dinner and Somalia for an evening stroll. Yep, I’ve talked myself into it. I want teleportation. Now, where do I sign up for this?
“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.
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.
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