Abby Jimenez Romances the Page

What goes on at night in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, among the dark pines, when lightning streaks in the high clouds? In a tent in Abby Jimenez’s romance novel The Happy Ever After Playlist, it’s a steamy moment in one rock-star-plus-artist’s happily ever after, clashed with claps of thunder.

Fitting, because once upon a time on a stormy night in the real-world BWCAW, within the confines of the humdrum reality the rest of us are forced to endure, the one with mosquitos, Jimenez was a real-world mom zipped inside a thunder-trembling tent with a husband and antsy kids. Instead of focusing on the downside of the mud and water, Jimenez pulled her little ones in tight and said, “Girls, how about I tell you a story?” Little did the world know what would come from that lightning-filled night.

What’s the difference between life and a romance novel? What’s the difference between sensible salad lunches and cupcakes? No one knows more about these big questions than wildly popular writer Abby Jimenez, so I met her for a healthy lunch of salads at Maple Grove’s 3 Squares, none too far from her first Minnesota bakery, Nadia Cakes, the cupcake specialists. 

The Maple Grove Nadia Cakes, of course, is the one Jimenez opened with her husband Carlos on one side of the Twin Cities in 2012, before the couple debuted a tapestry-wallpapered, more deluxe Nadia Cakes in 2015 on the other side of the Cities, in Woodbury. 

Once her two Twin Cities bakeries were up and running, Jimenez stepped away to begin a truly astonishing second act of her career, spinning out a world of bestselling Minnesota-based or Minnesota-slightly-adjacent romance novels, each with pivotal moments during which, say, men help their aging parents take out docks for the season, couples marry at Duluth’s Glensheen Mansion, and every now and then, something goes on in a tent amidst the loons and moose that no one ever forgets.  

A few words about Jimenez’s work: It’s big. She’s been a New York Times bestseller a few times, a USA Today bestseller, and her last book, Yours Truly, was the Book of the Month Club’s 2023 pick for book of the year. This new one, Just for the Summer, hit shelves in April and will almost certainly be a bestseller this summer, due to Good Morning America and Jimenez’s social-media army, a group of 25,000-some souls within her private Facebook group. 

There’s a constant Hollywood churn of deals attached to her work, in the eternal manner of Hollywood, the slow but powerful place where the early-2000s Bridgerton books only made it to screen in 2020. Don’t underestimate Jimenez’s economic and creative power just because she writes that ever looked-down-upon-genre of “romance novels.” 

Now, a few definitional words, so we’re all on the same page. Just as the genre of mystery novels are read with expectations, mainly that the mystery will be solved by the end, romance novels bring their own genre conventions: Soul meets interesting soul in the beginning, obstacles arise, the two will be together at the end. Romances are different from, say, love stories, which can end in tears. So: Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ending in a triple wedding, is a romance; Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, ending in various funerals, that’s merely a love story. 

That said, majority-culture often looks down on romances for their predictable structure—a meet-cute, a series of conflicts, the happily ever after—and because romance is a world of women. (Though not all women! Abby Jimenez’s author Facebook group is about 90/10 percent women/men. And there’s an argument to be made that some of the constant churn of the internet gender war could be solved if men would read a few Jimenez books. What do women really want? A guy who helps mop up the kitchen floor when a pipe bursts, a guy brave enough to purchase period products, a guy who takes an active role when confronting fertility issues.) 

It’s kind of funny to notice that in internet discourse, young men always say that women want so-called ‘Chads,’ handsome men who are big earners, but in Abby Jimenez bestsellers women want men who actively manage their own anxiety and adopt three-legged dogs while being aware of, but still showing up for, the complicated dynamics inside their own families. 

But who is the woman behind the bestsellers? In real life, Abby Jimenez is impossibly self-effacing, she’s just lucky, she taps her books out on her phone in the checkout line at Cub foods. Sensing there was more, I pestered her enough to get some real details and thought it would be fun to put my discoveries into a form her most-avid readers would enjoy: a romance.

The Heroine’s Difficult Origins

Born in Washington D.C., to a challenging, 100 percent Sicilian mother and a partly Italian dad, young Abigail Hales lived in Virginia till the age of 7, then in California thereafter, blessed with the looks of an Italian opera star, flashing ink-dark eyes, dark chestnut hair. But her mom took off when she was 12, leaving Abby’s dad to struggle. 

As oldest daughter of three, Abby had to be very independent, and come up with the money to keep herself in clothes. Despite being selected for advanced English classes throughout high school, Abby’s family had no kind of money for college, and, in fact, she had to take her final year of high school as an independent study so she could work full time in a headset for minimum wage: “The Del Taco drive-through—actually the hardest job I’ve ever had,” she reflects now. 

From age 16 to 23, her employers included: “Subway, Baskin-Robbins, a jewelry kiosk at the mall, breakfast waitress, finally Express.” The 24-hour-a-day worker you meet now, who places supreme value on a happy home, is an Abby Jimenez forged in those grinding years after her mom left.  

The Meet-Cute

Abby worked her way up to Express manager and along the way met another Express manager: Carlos Jimenez, the supportive, kind, attentive, hardworking, eventual husband who you could argue is the ghost in the machine of all of the attentive, supportive heroes in Jimenez’s books. The couple lived in Palmdale, California. It’s a high-desert town separated from Los Angeles by an hour of Angeles National Forest. “We have the same background—hard workers, no college. We’ve been together 22 years. It’s a great marriage—we are meant for each other,” says Abby. “Carlos is the wind beneath my wings in every way.” 

The First Crisis

Abby and Carlos, who had two girls in two years, were both commuting three hours roundtrip to Los Angeles. Abby was six months pregnant with their third daughter when she got laid off. “We had a 1,600-square-foot house; cars that were like 8, 10 years old; and we were descending into debt,” recalls Jimenez. “I thought, Well, let me do something I’ve always wanted to do while I’m on unemployment.” 

She took a cake decorating class at Michaels, the kind the store offers to sell a few cake pans and cake decorating supplies to moms wanting to make a nice birthday cake. Jimenez isn’t like most moms. She started pulling 12-hour days practicing her icing flowers and frosting animals. She had been watching a lot of Food Network and thought that there was nowhere in Palmdale for people to get that new, fancy stuff. 

Inspired by a friend who had an in-home cake business, Jimenez thought she could help her own family’s money troubles by launching Nadia Cakes from her home. She wildly undercharged, worked night and day, and did indeed end up mainly profiting Michaels with cake pan purchases. She worked so hard, she soon needed surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. Three preschoolers, no job, medical troubles, and escalating debt spelled crisis for the young couple.

Let’s Bet On Us

Then Carlos had an idea: What if they cashed $125,000 worth of those cash-advance credit card checks and opened a brick-and-mortar bakery? “We sat on the bed signing them,” she recalls. “I will never forget that day. It was like we had to do them all on the same day or the banks would talk to each other. It was wild. On my own, I would never, never, never have opened a bakery. I am not a risk-taker. Carlos is the one who’s like: ‘We are descending into debt. Let’s open a bakery.’ I thought the idea was banana-pants. Carlos was right.” 

Five months later, the build-out for the Palmdale Nadia Cakes was done, and in 2009 the bakery opened. Three weeks later, Jimenez thought she was going to lose her mind. Working around-the-clock making cakes and dealing with customers, she had no time to renegotiate credit card rates or deal with the accounting. Carlos, the single source of the family’s health insurance, 401K, and stable income, looked at the huge customer response and quit his job. He is CFO of Nadia Cakes to this day.  

A Test

Any fictional hero has to be tested and overcome stratospheric difficulties. Think Odysseus and the sirens, Frodo volunteering to take the ring. One Abby Jimenez test involved Cupcake Wars. With her home bakery, she spent nights entering Nadia Cakes into every online database she could find for caterers, kid birthday parties, you name it. This meant that when a producer from Food Network entered “best cupcakes Los Angeles,” Nadia Cakes popped up. When selected, she showed up, with only her Michaels cake decorating class behind her, to compete with fully accredited culinary school pastry graduates. “I felt so much impostor syndrome,” she says now. 

At the time, Jimenez, a start-up baker with more debt than fame, told cameras: “I am an extremely competitive person. I will run through that kitchen and do whatever it takes. I will not stop until I win Cupcake Wars.” She summoned the energy—the kind you really only find in a child who had to leave high school to work at the Del Taco drive-through—and baked and decorated 1,000 cupcakes in two hours. She won. 

More Adversity

Even with the TV win and the first Nadia Cakes doing well, the little family was not earning enough to meet the challenges on the horizon. Alums of California public schools, neither Carlos nor Abby thought the schools were good enough for their girls, and consequently they were looking at pricey private school tuition, expenses that would ruin them.

“What if we just moved to somewhere with good public schools?” they wondered. After packing the kids into the car and driving to check out a few states—including Minnesota, because Carlos had worked for Room and Board and the employees of the Minnesota-based company talked up our fair state—the two arrived in an August heat wave and decided Minnesota’s cupcake competition was light. They rented a house in the northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities and set about opening the first Minnesota Nadia Cakes.

Good Things Happen

One of the key tropes of romance novels is that if you’re a good person and try hard, everything will work out in the end. Lauren Vandeberg is the manager of both Minnesota Nadia Cakes and has worked for Abby and Carlos for 10 years. “The thing about Abby and Carlos that no one sees is how generous they are,” says Vandeberg. “If someone has a death in the family or gets sick, they send DoorDash gift cards, they take over where they can to help the person, they do whatever they can to make the person feel valued and appreciated, and give them what they need. We have employees at Palmdale who have been there since day one, and same thing here in Minnesota. That’s unheard-of retention for a bakery.” 

In addition to treating employees well when times are tough, the Jimenezes work to make sure that employees get to exercise their creativity. “It’s important to Abby and Carlos that people can express themselves creatively here,” explains Vandeberg. “We’ll say, ‘Take some time, go in the back, play the music that feels right for you, bake something that makes you feel inspired.’” That’s how Nadia Cakes has developed some 200 cupcake flavors and comes up with novel treats that keep people returning to the store. 

Second Act Complications

In 2017, after Abby, Vandeberg, Carlos, and their 75-or-so employees had invested a year getting the second Minnesota Nadia Cakes on stable ground, Abby Jimenez had become the one thing heroes of romance novels basically can never be: burnt out. 

“I could never decorate another cake in my life and be happy, I’m sorry to say,” she says now. “It went from something I love to nothing but work.” She had three kids, four dogs, and, little did she know, she would soon be handling both an emerging autoimmune disease that was impacting her kidney function and ovarian cancer. It was time to step away. 

“I was an avid reader my whole life,” she tells me. “I started reading Piers Anthony novels when I was nine; I blew through them. The girl who sat behind me in school would pass me those bodice-ripper novels with Fabio on the cover—I’d take them home, blow through them in a night.” 

When Jimenez stepped back from the bakeries, she started reading again, especially romance. “I love romance of every sort. I love rom-coms.” Reading and reading, especially The Hunger Games books, Abby felt parts of herself coming alive again and started composing a book in her head. Then came the family camping trip in the Boundary Waters, the rain, and Jimenez pulling her kids—then 9, 10, and 11—in to tell them a story. 

A Pie in the Face

Jimenez returned from her camping trip and started writing her own young-adult romance. Every day when her oldest daughter would come home from school, Jimenez would read her the latest she had written. Soon, Jimenez had a final draft. Problem: It was the size of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a doorstopper of 300,000 words, and when she sent it out to agents the only one who replied said, Jimenez recalls: “This isn’t it. You need critique partners.” 

After a quick Google search, Jimenez found an online resource called Critique Circle. It works like this: You volunteer to critique other users’ work, when you build up enough credits earned critiquing the work of others, you can submit your own work. You guessed it: Jimenez spent 12 hours a day on the site for a year, writing, revising, critiquing others’ work. “My husband was like: ‘Aren’t you going overboard with this hobby?’ I was like, ‘I’ll get back to you. I’m on Critique Circle right now.’” 

With the help of that free online critique resource, Jimenez wrote her first romance, The Happy Ever After Playlist, a book that does what Jimenez likes: It shows people with complicated issues bantering wittily on the road to getting their happily ever after. In this instance, her lead, Sloan, was grieving her fiancée who died in an accident. Her witty but deep, dark-but-light romance landed an agent, who discovered: The powers that be in the business of romance hated the book. “How could a main female lead in a romance suffer with complicated grief?” they said. 

Next? Nine months of rejection. One publisher offered a three-book deal, but not for this book and only for romances set in cupcake bakeries, for the marketing tie-in. 

“No, don’t stereotype me,” Jimenez recalls thinking. “I either want to do what I want to do on my terms, or not at all.” 

So, undaunted by the publishing world, she set out to write a prequel to The Happy Ever After Playlist, called The Friend Zone, and sent that one out. Months of nothing, and then finally an offer. Then another offer, the very next day. An auction! 

A Weird But Good Coincidence

Romances rely on weird but good coincidences, like future spouses knocking into one another in a hallway. Jimenez’s own big, beneficial coincidence was around her social media. The year was 2018, and The Friend Zone was sold but not yet out in the world. Up to this point, she had just been practicing her natural, witty banter on the pages of her own books and within the confines of Critique Circle, but her publisher wanted Jimenez to work on establishing her own social media presence as an author. 

Meanwhile, in her parallel career, an unrelated, good coincidence: One of her Nadia Cakes bakers, encouraged to explore their creativity, came up with an idea—“Let’s make one of those cakes that looks like a geode, but in shades of pink!” The internet saw things. The New York Post summed up the maelstrom that followed in a headline: “This ‘geode cake’ sure looks like a vagina.” 

Jimenez bantered and played her way through the ensuing social media frenzy, and in the process got 50,000 Facebook followers for her author account and 250,000 new Facebook followers for the bakeries. When The Friend Zone hit the shelves, it ended up selling so well, partly due to her social media following, her publisher offered her a second three-book deal. 

Friends Gather

A good romance heroine is surrounded by good friends—it’s a sign of reliability and virtue. Think of Jane Austen’s leads, like Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, in books that are as much about female friendship as anything else. 

Soon after Abby Jimenez launched and started growing her social media, a world of adult women friends gathered around her. They volunteered to be admins in her Facebook group, to run her advanced reader copy distribution network, and even to help her with early drafts of her books. A few key women in this group—some Minnesotans—are Terri Burrell in Cottage Grove, Jeanette Jett in Anoka, Amy Norman in Utah, and Dawn Cooper, also in the northwest suburbs. 

Dawn Cooper, a director in IT for Thrivent, lives across the street from Jimenez. “In 30 seconds, I’m in her kitchen, and she’s making me breakfast,” Cooper says, as she explains their friendship and working relationship. Abby emails Dawn first-draft chapters, and the two go on “plot-walks” where they hash out Abby’s ideas for what the characters are doing. “We talk about them like they’re people we know,” explains Cooper. “Part of my job-job is looking at broader pictures of things, finding the thing in a team that’s preventing progress. My brain just works well with puzzles, providing feedback, finding problems. So, she’ll text me: ‘I have food, come over, let’s book-talk.’ Maybe we’ll go for a walk and I’ll say: ‘This doesn’t make sense to me,’ and she’ll change something. Or I’ll say: ‘I don’t love this.’ And she’ll say: ‘But I do, too bad for you.’ It’s really interesting to me to see how her mind works, how she grows and rises to different challenges. And it’s a friendship that comes with a lot of perks.” 

In exchange for volunteering as admins for her social media, Jimenez hosts the group at her lake house, takes them for luxe dinners at Stillwater’s Domaćin, and even brings them on publicity tours.

“The real bonus of being in the admin group is that I’ve gained three new friends, truly good friends,” explains Cooper. “We know each other inside and out. As an adult to gain three friends who are encouraging and positive is awesome. And it’s fun for me to watch my friend and neighbor turn into a best-selling author. What people don’t know about Abby is she’s 100 percent authentically who you see on the page—a very thoughtful, funny, intelligent, considerate person. You see it in everything she does. It’s kind of wild the level of fame she’s growing in to, but also it’s not wild, because she’s a super hard worker.” 

The Pinch-Me Happily Ever After

In any romance novel, there’s the payoff, the moment at the end where the heroine gets everything she never dared to dream of. It’s a jolt of bliss, a fitting reward, the best day of her life. As the world of romance calls it: the happily ever after, or the happily ever after for now. 

Abby Jimenez is living a string of happily ever afters these days. Good Morning America flew her and Carlos to New York to stay in a fancy hotel, for instance. A reader donated a kidney to a stranger after reading the Jimenez book starring a heroine with a brother who has a failing kidney and the man who’s a perfect match. Abby’s funny narrations have turned the family dogs Tess and Stuntman Mike (yes, named for the Quentin Tarantino character) into TikTok stars with their own huge followings. With her pups and her circle of best friends gathered close, she’s created a book marketing team notable for loyalty, availability, and cost-effectiveness.  

Now, is it time for the biggest happily ever after: Hollywood? As I noted earlier, Hollywood likes rom-coms, and it just so happens Jimenez writes rom-coms. “To make a movie you need a million things to go right, and only one thing to go wrong,” cautions Jimenez. “I’ve had multiple deals, signed movie contracts, had directors picked, major actresses attached—and in the end nothing happened.” 

Yet. It’s hard not to notice how many movies, like Twilight and The Hunger Games, or how much destination television, like Bridgerton, Gossip Girl, Outlander, and The Vampire Diaries, came from romance novels. Could Abby Jimenez’s work end up on-screen, and could a pivotal scene take place in a tent in the Boundary Waters? 

If so, how sweet would that be? Sweet as a cupcake or sweet as a happily ever after? When it comes to the works of Abby Jimenez, she’ll hand you both.