The Sugar Queen
I read about The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen somewhere–I think it was initially at Care’s Online Book Club–and decided it sounded like fun, so I dug up a used copy of the (2009) paperback and read the whole thing on Sunday. The reason I had scooped it up that morning is because it was the only book sitting out that would fit into my purse so I could read discreetly during one of those long parent/audience things where you sit for an hour through other kids’ performances in order to hear your kid perform one song.
Once I had opened the first page, I fell upon this little novel like a woman falling upon an open bowl half-full of red and green foil-wrapped chocolate kisses, and soon it was all gone. We got off to a rocky start, however.
From the very first line of the first page, it was clear that the main character and I are polar opposites* about weather—when I read about how she feels about the beginning of winter, I mentally reversed it:
“Finally it was cold enough to wear long coats and tights. It was cold enough for scarves and shirts worn in layers, like camouflage. It was cold enough for her lucky red cardigan…. She loved this time of year. Summer was tedious with the light dresses she pretended to be comfortable in while secretly sure she looked like a loaf of white bread wearing a belt. The cold was such a relief.”
For me, being able to shrug the weight of heavy long coats from my shoulders, be rid of itchy tights and scarves, and wear light, form-fitting clothing is a physical relief.
But then I found out that Josey, this main character, retreats into food and solitude, away from her overbearing mother. And we were friends again. I never had an entire closet full of sweets to fill up the empty places after a mother-approved slimming meal, but then I didn’t live with my mother until I was twenty-seven years old, either. As another character who discovers what’s in the closet says to Josey, “This closet is the fantasy of every shy, chubby kid in America.”
Josey’s mother is worse than any mother in real life could be, withholding love or even approval because the only thing she was ever taught to value in herself was beauty, and now that her daughter is becoming more beautiful than she is, she’s a jealous old woman. The Snow White Queen aspect of that works well with the other little magic touches in the novel, like how books follow one character named Chloe around. That could get too cute, but in the context of the story, it’s not. This is one of my favorite parts, when Chloe has broken up with her boyfriend and a friend has been trying to console her:
“Is this your book?” he asked as he picked it up.
She looked over at it, expecting it to be that damn book that had been following her all day.
This was a new book. Old Love, New Direction.
“This is good, Clo.” He held the book in the palm of his hand like a scale, as if the words had weight. “It’s good that you have this.”
Confused, Chloe leaned out of the room and looked over to Finding Forgiveness back on top of the couch cushions in the living room.
Good Lord, it had called in reinforcements.
The “trick” behind the book magic is never revealed; it stays real. It is amusing, though, to see other characters react to it as if Chloe is being metaphorical about the way books follow her around:
“Books can be possessive, can’t they? You’re walking around in a bookstore and a certain one will jump out at you, like it had moved there on its own, just to get your attention. Sometimes what’s inside will change your life, but sometimes you don’t even have to read it. Sometimes it’s a comfort just to have a book around. Many of these books haven’t even had their spines cracked. ‘Why do you buy books you don’t even read?’ our daughter asks us. That’s like asking someone who lives alone why they bought a cat. For company, of course.”
One of the things I like about that passage is the way the speaker assumes that a book gets worn with use and if it hasn’t had the spine cracked yet, it hasn’t been read enough.
Books and sweets, the two things that get me through the winter—how could I not love this book at this time of year? In addition to having every chapter named for a different kind of candy, The Sugar Queen excels at gustatory metaphor: “Embarrassment felt a lot like eating chili peppers. It burned in the back of your throat and there was nothing you could do to make it go away. You just had to take it, suffer from it, until it eased off.”
There are secrets in the plot, and I’m not revealing them because discovering them is part of the fun.
That I put this particular book into my purse that morning because of its size makes me feel like it ended up there on purpose…it made magic real, for a little while.
*Yes, I was affected by this book’s cuteness into thinking I could say something like “polar opposites” and get away with it.