Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: The Sugar Queen

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

"The thing is, books just appear to me." This quote, from one of the central characters in the novel The Sugar Queen, accurately describes how I often stumble upon the books I read. Although I can't say I've had the same kind of magical experience as Chloe, for whom books just "arrive" in her life without having to go buy them at the store or check them out from the library, I often find that I am surprised by how appropriate or timely a book is for me.

This book by Sara Addison Allen very much "wanted" to come home with me; as I perused my other options in the local Barnes and Noble, I kept coming back to the description on the back. I've been wanting to keep my promise of adding some reviews of novels about food to my blog, and I saw potential in this book. I also found the part about Chloe bumping into books that demanded to be read rather intriguing -- as if I was having the same experience with this book.

The Sugar Queen is a book about a young woman, Josey, who loves sweets, but is trapped in a
going-nowhere existence living with her rich, controlling mother. Josey, a plump but pretty
girl, hides her amazing stash of old-fashioned candies and treats and romance novels behind
a false wall in her closet. Since the outside world of the small, cutesy, Southern town of Bald
Slope really holds nothing for her, Josey dreams about escaping from her mother's guilt trip
and travelling the world.

One day, Josey opens her closet -- where a horde of mallowmars and soda pop awaits -- to
discover a visitor. Sitting there is Della Lee Baker, a woman with a shady past but a heart
of gold and a knack for getting Josey to see the dead-end she is in. With Della Lee's encouragement, Josey breaks out out her rut and makes some new friends and discovers the power that comes from admitting her own desires, instead of hiding them in a closet.

One of the friends is Chloe, a sweet, passionate, yet practical young woman who runs a sandwich shop in the courthouse building. Della augers that Josey and Chloe should meet, so she tells Josey to go get sandwiches from her: tomato and three-cheese, fried egg, turkey on cheese bread. The sandwiches sound tasty, and we even get a description of Chloe making the fried egg and cheese (spoiler! she uses a bit of dill on the cooking egg). Her storyline touched me even more than Josey's for entirely personal reasons. In her tale, her long-term boyfriend cheats on her one night -- a meaningless, one-time thing. Obviously hurt, Chloe turns the man out of his own apartment . . . and then begins to realize how deeply entwined their lives are. This is a couple who makes water boil when they are together (I had reminders of Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate here). However, Chloe also needs to develop some autonomy -- she has given everything to this man. Jake, her boyfriend, for his part, feels awful and is desperate to get Chloe back. While Chloe is trying to figure where her head is at, she is visited by a witty plague of books with titles, such as "Finding Forgiveness," and "A Girl's Guide to Keeping Her Guy." Though she never reads the books -- they seem to irritate her with their embarassing appearances -- Chloe seems to get the message anyway.

Organized into chapters named for candies -- "Everlasting Gobstoppers" and "Sugar Daddy" are
a couple -- The Sugar Queen would seem to put comfort food at the center of the novel. It's not. While the author cleverly dusts this tale with sugary descriptions, I felt that I was getting the "icks" -- a little too sweet, not enough substance. I couldn't help but feel a little grossed out by the thought of a grown woman eating so much junk. By the end, the book becomes a light adventure and a lesson in learning to be oneself. A nice message, but it could have been a little less predictable -- I saw the wrap-up to Della's story coming a mile away.

I hestitate to call the book magical realism because it doesn't really have the substance of the typical offering from that movement/genre even though it does make use of unexplainable events. The strange occurences are not really depicted as "realism" -- they are weird even to the people who live with them everyday. This book falls more into the formula of a romance novel, a light story that uses magical events, like a modern fairy tale. I have to say that after just finishing Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses -- a book that can genuinely be defined as magical realism -- I found this book a little too light and fluffy for my tastes. It is a sweet story, and I found the two storylines of the lonely Josey and the betrayed Chloe to remind me of both my own past as a lonely girl who used food for comfort (in secret) and as a woman who knows the sting of being cheated on, to be a comforting distraction. But I didn't really learn anything, I wasn't moved to think of my world in a different way, and I didn't experience anything significant from a foodie's point of view that would make me recommend this book to other food-folk.

Grade: C+


bibliochef said...

I have enjoyed some of her work, and reviewed it. Do you teach about food literature as a professor?


Not really. I did a course on nature and writing, and we read The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I haven't taught food "fiction." I'm thinking about it though. :)