Content warnings: Loss of a parent, post-partum depression
Donut Fall in Love is a funny, flirty, foodie romance which deals with themes of grief and family in a very honest and thoughtful way. I liked the way that it explored serious themes and messy family dynamics while still being a fun, sweet, and often light-hearted read.
Ryan Kwok is an actor whose abs regularly trend on Twitter. His most recent film was a flop, and he is worried that he has now ruined things for every Asian actor who follows him. But far larger in his life looms the recent loss of his mother, who died unexpectedly four months ago. His mother was the connector in the family, the one who did the emotional labour of holding the family together, and without her, Ryan and his family are becoming unglued. His sister is preoccupied with her new baby and not coping, and his father responds to all his attempts at contact with grunts and questions as to why he is even calling.
Except on Twitter, where he has begun Tweeting as @RyanKwoksFather, and providing helpful commentary such as:
“When will you stop taking off your shirt and finish your engineering degree?”
When Ryan is invited to star in a celebrity episode of Baking Fail, a reality TV show with a strong resemblance to Nailed It, he can’t resist the opportunity. Baking Fail was one of his mother’s favourite shows, and if he wins, he will be able to donate the prize to one of her most beloved charities. The only problem is, he can’t bake. (No, not even enough for Nailed It, a concept that makes my head explode just thinking of it.)
Fortunately, he knows someone who can – if by ‘know’ you mean ‘literally ran into her at the bakery she owns and knocked an entire tray of matcha tiramisu donuts onto the floor’. But he’s pretty sure he can convince her to give him baking lessons. After all, he is willing to pay for them. And he is *very* pretty.
Lindsay McLeod threw herself into baking after her father died seven years ago, and now co-owns the Kensington Bake Shop with her best friend and former flatmate, Noreen. She loves her job, but is beginning to feel a bit stuck in life – all her friends are getting married, Noreen is on her honeymoon, and Lindsay’s new flatmate, Vivian, is polite but cool and unapproachable. She hasn’t been in a relationship since her father died, and she has found it difficult to make new friends. Giving baking lessons to a (very hot) actor so that he doesn’t completely humiliate himself on Baking Fail might be just the change she needs.
There is a LOT going on in this book, so I’m just going to pull out a few of my favourite things. (Frankly, there wasn’t anything I *didn’t* like about this book, but if I tell you about all the things I did like, we’d be here all evening, and that’s time you could have spent reading this book instead.)
First, I want to talk about the relationship between Ryan and his father, but also Ryan’s family dynamics more generally. Ryan’s family has just changed shape in two crucial ways. His sister, Jenna, was five months pregnant with her first child when their mother died, and so the family is welcoming the first child in a new generation at the same time as they are mourning the loss of their mother. In some ways, the birth of baby Ezra adds to the sense of loss, because it’s impossible to think of him without remembering his missing grandma. There are little reminders of this loss sprinkled throughout the story, from Ryan musing on just HOW MUCH FOOD she would have been bringing to Jenna’s house, to the half-knitted baby hat still sitting on the coffee at Ryan’s father’s house. The hole in the family where Ryan’s mother ought to be is raw and palpable. And I love how Ryan, as the only emotionally fluent one left in the family, tries so hard to fill that hole.
(I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence in a review of a romance novel with absolutely no filthy intent. What a waste!)
And his father gives him absolutely no help at all. He’s an engineer who likes documentaries and non-fiction books, and he has no time for what he considers frivolity – and Ryan is, at least on the surface, all frivolity. When Ryan asks how he is, he snorts and tells him that this is a stupid question. When Ryan rings his house, his calls go straight to the answering machine. But when Ryan drops in for a visit, he grumbles at him for turning up without warning. Ryan absolutely can’t win, though he tries so, so, hard.
But at the same time, his father is posting laconic, and often drily funny, commentary on Ryan’s life on Twitter, and sharing ‘flashback Friday’ photos of Ryan as a child with his (unexpectedly many) followers. His Tweets read like someone reaching out for connection, yet all their in person or telephone conversations are like running into a brick wall.
I loved this in so many ways. It seems odd to talk about yearning in a romance novel and not be talking about the hero and heroine, and yet there is a yearning here. Ryan’s father may be the most emotionally constipated character I’ve ever read, but there was something about this combination of almost-reaching-out on Twitter and backing away in real life that felt very poignant and real. I’m all about people communicating and using their words, but the reality is, most of us are extremely bad at doing that with our families. I liked the way this story showed some of the ways in which love can be complicated and messy and even destructive at times, and yet also a very full, real, warming thing.
(But I’m glad that this story didn’t do that with the romantic relationship, because that would have been no fun at all.)
Lindsay is also watching as her family takes on a new shape. Her mother has started dating for the first time since her father died, and it feels both weird and good. I really liked watching her mother finally having the chance to embrace the Chinese part of her Chinese-Canadian heritage (though the bit about her mother’s recipes really made me cry.). This was a much less complicated, gentler journey, because Lindsay and her family are seven years on from their grief, and while they have been changed by loss, they also know how to live with it.
I really enjoyed the relationship between Ryan and Lindsay. Ryan is extremely hot, and he knows it, and I liked the way he is so playful about it, and that Lindsay both responds to it and doesn’t let him get away with it.
“What kind of cupcakes will we make next week? Have you decided?”
“I think so, but I’m not telling you.” There was a look of mischief on her face. “It’s a surprise.”
“Lindsay…” he gave her his best smoldering look.
His smolder was quite fine, according to several movie critics, and was frequently discussed in #StarringRyanKwoksAbs tweets.
Lindsay, as expected, was not immune. Her pupils dilated and her lips parted… and God, she was pretty like that.
But she didn’t care.
“I’m still not telling you,” she said. “Not even if you take off your shirt.”
I love that Ryan is as wildly attracted to Lindsay as she is to him, and not shy about letting her see that. I also liked that their relationship was based on a very strong foundation of kindness and friendship. Most of the time, they are very good at communicating, and there is a lot of trust between them.
There were a number of smaller things I enjoyed. The food porn, as always, was exceptional. Cakes of many kinds, donuts, biscuits, rolled ice cream, sushi… don’t read this book when you are hungry, basically. I also thoroughly enjoyed the Baking Fail episodes, and the championing of escapist entertainment in times of stress.
I also really enjoyed Lindsay’s relationship with her flatmate, Vivian, and appreciated seeing a character for whom following their dream meant having a nice stable job, thank you, and creating art purely for the love of it. Creative people always seem to be pushed to monetise their hobbies, or make careers or side gigs of them, and it’s so easy to lose the joy in them that way. I do hope Vivian gets her own book down the track, because I love seeing a character who knows herself well enough to know that this isn’t the path for her.
Donut Fall In Love is a sensual delight of a book. It has the sweetness and fluffiness of a lemon meringue cupcake, the spiciness of an orange cardamom donut, and the wholesomeness of a yoghurt and berry parfait. And I know, I know, that was a very laboured metaphor, but I kept on thinking of ways to describe this book that sounded like descriptions of cake, so what was I to do?
It is such a perfectly balanced book, too. It doesn’t just skim over the surface of difficult things, but it also doesn’t drag you down into the depths of grief, either. I loved that it is such a light, funny, hot read, but also a story that invites reflection. The family relationships are deeply satisfying and feel very real. I think I could come to this book in many different moods and find different things each time.
I loved it.