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The Sugar Queen

December 18, 2012

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.
But no.
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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    December 18, 2012 12:09 pm

    Ah – I read her first book – which also had magical elements – and really liked it. I’ll have to find this one. She’s fallen off my radar.

    • December 19, 2012 8:24 am

      I wonder if I would have liked this one so much if I’d been expecting it–part of the charm was that I knew almost nothing about the book or the author.

  2. December 18, 2012 1:31 pm

    I am…mildly fond of SAA. Although sometimes her books hit that sweet spot (haha, sorry, Jeanne, but you brought that on yourself with the “polar opposites” quip.) My gripe (and it is a mild gripe because SAA doesn’t pretend to be Great Literature) is that her characters are not awfully distinctive; they all seem sort of interchangeable from novel to novel. Maybe it’s the overlay of magical realism? Whatever, I enjoyed this one too.

    • December 19, 2012 8:30 am

      Aha, the cuteness just keeps on going. It sounds like it might be a good idea to read these novels sparingly–perhaps no more than one each year.

  3. December 18, 2012 7:09 pm

    Oh, yes, Josey and I disagree about the winter too. I hate it. But, the rest of this book sounds so lovely! I haven’t been able to figure out how to discretely read through boring things just yet, so I am jealous of your skill 🙂

    • December 19, 2012 8:32 am

      Perhaps part of the skill is learning to care less about what other people think (I mean, I did applaud for the other kids; I can listen and read) and part of it is having a small enough book that you can keep it out of sight if you sit in the back, which I did partly to read, and partly because I’m tall and no one wants to have to crane their neck around me to see a kid.

  4. December 19, 2012 5:11 am

    I read a Sarah Addison Allen novel earlier in the year – my first. I can’t quite recall the title and am too lazy to look it up (!) but it was something about peaches. I did enjoy it. Very cute, delightfully consumable, comfort reading with just enough fun and edge to make it sweet not saccharine. I would definitely read her again, and love the idea of books following a character around. Heh.

    • December 19, 2012 8:23 am

      The Peach Keeper. That sounds like the one I should read next.

  5. December 19, 2012 6:22 am

    Aw yes, lovely book, just rightly balanced between fairytale and realism, with a bit of sharpness (maybe like a peppermint?). I think I ahve the other book litlove mentions which might make great comfort reading soon.

    • December 19, 2012 8:38 am

      Yes, the sharpness is what makes the rest of it so delightful. I had never heard the bit about the peppermint oil on the windowsills.

  6. December 19, 2012 2:34 pm

    As I said in my review, this is magic realism done right … and that is hard to do, isn’t it? I enjoyed this too — though I had forgotten about the books following her. That was a great touch. I plan on reading another of hers in 2013 … a little treat I’ll give myself.

    • December 20, 2012 8:00 am

      Jenners, it was you who made me put this book on my list, and it was that phrase–“magical realism done right”–that did it! Thanks for discussing it and reminding me that it was your discussion that tipped me over the edge!

  7. December 20, 2012 11:02 am

    I adore SAA books. I’ve only read two, but expect all of them to be delightful.

    • December 20, 2012 11:35 am

      It does sound like spacing them out is a good idea. I’ve had a number of root canals already.

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