My rating: 4 of 5 stars
At the beginning of Bernice McFadden’s Sugar, we don’t meet Sugar. We meet Jude, so to speak. Jude is the ghost in the story, the crux of every emotional scene in the novel. Jude is the murdered child of Pearl, a woman who befriends her next door neighbor that happens to go by the name ‘Sugar’.
Sugar is what polite people call a woman of ill repute and what not-so-polite people call a whore or a prostitute, blowing into the town of Bigelow on the wind of a powerful storm. The people of Bigelow are simple and quiet, a little bit superstitious and a whole lot judgemental. It seems like Pearl is the only person that really see Sugar for who she is… perhaps because Pearl is about the most naive person in Bigelow.
Pearl is a mere shell of the woman she used to be. Since Jude’s death, she had withdrawn into herself and her sadness. She’d once asked God to allow her to die, but he refused. Pearl guessed God had more work for her to do. Pearl was right. From the moment they meet, Pearl and Sugar are nearly inseparable. They eat together laugh together, and share a strange bond and a kinship that neither understand but both truly enjoy. For Sugar, it’s about having a friend where she used to have none. For Pearl, it’s much deeper.
Sugar, you see, looks amazingly, almost identically, like Jude.
For the first time in over fifteen years (the amount of years that had passed since Jude’s death in 1940), Pearl was smiling and laughing, responding to her husband in ways she hadn’t in so many years. Through her friendship with Sugar, Pearl sheds her graying hair and wrinkling face, stooped over posture and overall defeated, small, shy countenance. Sugar brings life and youth and vigor, again.
This bond, however, comes at a price. Sugar has a long, drawn out history, full of women who taught her that her body was for the pleasure of men and that alone, and men who confirmed this belief at every turn. Sugar does not know her mother or her father, choosing to create ties with the women that run the brothels where she works. She has spent her life wandering the country from Detroit to St Louis and back to Arkansas, perhaps in search of something, but not knowing what that something is until she finds it– family. Pearl would lose friendships over Sugar. Her life would change as a result of befriending her neighbor the Whore. People would talk, as they do in small towns. Reputations would be destroyed. But the bond would not break.
Sugar is set in the mid century 1900’s and bounces between Bigelow and Short Junction, Arkansas- Bigelow being the present, Short Junction being the past. McFadden weavers her characters through the lives of Pearl and Sugar effortlessly. As I was reading, it was like watching the film reel in my mind. As details of Sugar’s past come to light, the connection between Pearl and her husband Joe, and Sugar seem to rise slowly from the murky deep of a twisted tale. The men that Sugar knows and the secrets that she holds would bind them all together for life.
I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. it was a quick read, though it wasn’t intended to be… I just kept turning pages so I could find out what happened when Pearl’s friends tried to run her out of town, or when Sugar dressed Pearl up and took her to the Juke Joint, called Memphis Roll, or when Sugar’s on again off again John-cum-wannabe boyfriend threatens her. I wanted to see Sugar make the changes that Pearl longed to see in her, and I wanted to rejoice at Pearl coming into her own, again.
This story is somewhat formulaic and in many ways it isn’t. I always try to form an idea of how the story will end. How these people are all intertwined and why they matter to each other– why are all of these characters in this story? Who are they and why do I care? Only one of my predictions came true, and I didn’t come to my conclusion until well into 3/4ths of the novel. To me, that’s a writer that does a great job of concealing the end of the plotline. And just when you think that the story will end and nothing will happen as you think it’s going to happen, there’s a tiny little twist… a photo. A wordless addition that explains everything. The bond, the connection, and why Sugar looks like Jude.
I almost didn’t see it coming.
If I had one complaint… okay well two… the bounces between past and present were very jolting. Flashbacks are difficult to do, or so I’ve been told, and they didn’t come across very well, to me. I often had to reread paragraphs to realize that the author had returned to the story in Bigelow. The second was the hairturn transition of Sugar from Whore to near Madonna and back to Whore. Having her on again off again John utter a few nasty phrases to her seemed like a weak trigger, to me. I also felt a little unfulfilled regarding his confession, his attack on her, and Sugar’s refusal to bring him to justice. I disagreed with her reasons for not doing that. I felt it would have brought closure to a family so heavily haunted by a senseless murder.
That said, I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve already purchased the 2002 followup- This Bitter Earth. It continues the story of Sugar after she leaves Bigelow and the comfort and Safety of Pearl and Joe. I can’t wait to read it!