It seems fitting that bestselling novelist Abby Jimenez, whose second book “The Happy Ever After Playlist” comes out Tuesday, has a story about how she met her husband that is as serendipitous, whimsical and unbelievable as the meet-cute of any classic romantic comedy.
“Strap in,” Jimenez said, before launching into the anecdote of how she met Carlos Jimenez. “It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
The couple wasn’t brought together by a well-meaning matchmaker friend or family member nor did the pair get to know each other through a shared hobby. Given that their meeting took place before dating apps became ubiquitous, the couple didn’t stumble upon each other after swiping through hundreds of other profiles, either.
Instead, they met when Jimenez accidentally got her future husband strip-searched at the airport.
Abby and Carlos both worked at the Express clothing chain at the time and were returning from a work conference, but they weren't supposed to be on the same plane. Abby’s conference had been slated for weeks earlier, but was rescheduled after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As they were boarding the plane, Alex, a mutual acquaintance of the now-married couple, asked Abby to hold on to Carlos’ bag because they were boarding his flight group and Carlos had left to buy food. But by the time they were boarding Abby’s group, Carlos still hadn’t returned.
“They were being really strict about carry-ons because it was right after September 11 and they wouldn’t let me on the plane with an extra carry-on bag,” Jimenez said. “My co-worker, Eddie, and I go up to the lady checking everybody in and tell her, ‘we have this bag. We don’t know who it belongs to’ and security comes and confiscated the bag.”
Around 20 minutes later, Carlos boarded the plane, looking “completely disheveled.”
“His shirt’s untucked; his belt’s loose; he’s carrying his shoes and the bag,” Jimenez said. “He came up to me and Eddie and said ‘you won’t believe what just happened to me. I gave my bag to Alex and Alex gave it to someone else who gave it to security and they dumped all my stuff and strip-searched me.”
Carlos and Abby wound up sitting together during their flight back to Los Angeles, conversing the whole way home.
It wasn’t until the couple was engaged that Abby revealed she was the one who had given up his bag.
An accidental global baking sensation
Although Carlos and Abby’s story seems like natural fodder for romance novels, Abby didn’t set out aiming to become a writer. In fact, she became an accidental global baking sensation before she ever started writing seriously.
After she was laid off from her retail job while pregnant with her third child in 2007, she decided to take a cake-decorating class at a local crafts shop since she had always enjoyed baking with her Sicilian family.
While taking the class, she began making and selling cakes from her home, until a rival neighborhood baker threatened to get her one-woman operation closed. She and Carlos decided to open up a legitimate shop, charging $125,000 on their credit cards to open Nadia Cakes’ first location in California. They couldn’t even afford a cash register upon opening.
The shop has since expanded to three locations — including two in Minnesota, where Jimenez and her family currently reside — and its cupcakes have become international guilty pleasures, especially since Jimenez won Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars” in 2013.
“There are moments in my life where I'm like, ‘I can't believe I did that,’” Jimenez said. “But I have a really great support system around me and I’m tenacious and if I enjoy something, and this is true for everyone, if you really enjoy doing something, it’s very easy to get really good at it because practicing it will be easy.”
Jimenez had always enjoyed romance novels when she was younger, but never attended college or had technical training in the craft. A few years ago, she began frequenting a website called Critique Circle, where writers can offer feedback to each other. Jimenez credits her peers on the website with helping her to not only learn how to structure her work, but also how to write query letters to agents.
A genre about "what’s happening to women right now"
The query letters worked. By the time Jimenez was ready to sell her first novel, not only had multiple houses bid on it, but Forever, a romance imprint of Hachette Book Group, solicited Jimenez to write a three-book series.
“The Happy Ever After Playlist,” a romantic comedy about a young woman who finds love and healing after her fiancé dies in a tragic accident, is technically Jimenez’s second book to be released. But it was the first book she wrote. “The Friend Zone,” about a woman who is hesitant to get into a serious relationship as she grapples with infertility, was released last year as the first in the series, since the events in the book came before those of “The Happy Ever After Playlist.”
“I’ve always read a ton and whether I was reading romance or not, I always found myself drawn to the love story,” Jimenez said. “I would always be chasing this certain type of story and I’d find bits and pieces of it in other books, but I couldn’t find the exact romance I was looking for: something light and funny but that didn’t feel cheesy and contrite.”
Yet Jimenez said the misconception that romance novels are superficial persists, a notion she finds misguided, since such novels highlight “what’s happening to actual women and people right now.”
“The fact that you can pick up a book and read your own struggle is pretty empowering and pretty amazing and that's true for all romance,” Jimenez said. “From infertility to domestic abuse to sexism in the workplace, these are things that women deal with on a day-to-day basis and you can often find those things in romance novels.”
One need not look further than Jimenez’s own novels, whose main characters are based on two of her closest friends who’ve struggled with grief and infertility. Carlos also manifests in her novels as “the best part of the male characters,” Jimenez said.
“I put a lot of my husband into my books,” Jimenez said. “Carlos is first-generation Latino; he grew up with immigrant parents from El Salvador and the culture permeates into my household and inevitably into my books, especially since they’re set in Los Angeles, which is a majority-Latino city.”
In “The Happy Ever After Playlist,” the main character notes how she always enjoyed cooking for her fiancé, who would make sure that everyone else had enough to eat before he piled food on his plate.
“It’s one of the endearing things I see in my husband —he was raised to be very selfless," Jimenez said. "When somebody comes into your home, you make sure they eat first and that they get seconds first before you even serve yourself.”