Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

February Read

My Rating 4.50 / 5.00

Josey Cirrini’s father, Marco, took Bald Slope, North Carolina and transformed it from a summer-only destination to a year-round success by building a very popular ski resort. He married Margaret, a southern belle from neighboring Asheville, and they had Josey late in life. A terror of a child, Josey has not felt happy or accepted since Marco died when she was nine years old. Margaret demands that Josey stay at home and be a "good daughter" by acting as her constant companion, totally controlled and always belittled. Josey's only escape from the barrage of criticism is her closet, with it's secret compartment crammed with romance novels, travel magazines and candy . . . lots of candy. Whenever she has negative feelings, which is quite often, Josey reaches for her favorite candies to fill the void.

Then, one day, Josey finds local waitress, Della Lee Baker in her closet, refusing to leave and questioning Josey's dowdy wardrobe and lack of self confidence. At Della Lee's insistence Josey strikes up a friendship with Chloe Finley, who runs the cafe in the courthouse and has a strange relationship with books: they appear out of thin air when she needs them and will pursue her if she tries to ignore them. Chloe has just thrown her boyfriend Jake out of their apartment after he admitted to being unfaithful. He is staying with his friend Adam, who is Josey's mailman . . . and with whom she has been hopelessly in love since she first saw him. As Josey continues to follow Della Lee's advice she becomes less reliable as her mother's slave, and Margaret is forced to reconnect with Rawley Pelham, the local taxi driver. As secrets within the Cirrini household are revealed, we follow Josey, Chloe and Margaret as their lives change forever . . . and we find out why Della Lee will not leave and why the Cirrini's maid calls them Oldsey and Oldgret.
This is a charming book, and in many ways it is similar to Garden Spells, Allen's debut novel. The characters are well-drawn and the dialogue is realistic but quirky enough to make it funny. The setting is warmly familiar and yet slightly magical, although this is mostly restricted to Chloe, with her book-stalkers and ability to cook eggs with passion, and Rawley, who cannot break a promise because he is a Pelham. Most of the characters are sympathetic and likeable, although Della Lee's boyfriend, Julian, is a real creep and it is difficult to sympathise with the unfaithful Jake. The place of chief baddy seems to be reserved for Margaret who resents her daughter, and hated her husband, so very much, that she continues to punish Josey for simply existing and looking like her father. However, as the story unfolds, we come to understand the reasons for this, and so she is a fully-realised three-dimensional character with a very sad past. Indeed, Marco turns out to be the true villai, in more ways than one. The funniest character is undoubtedly Hannah, the maid, who has an amazingly irreverent attitude to her employers, and the reason behind the Oldsey / Oldgret names is so pointedly rebellious that it will make you laugh out loud. 

Unfortunately, the biggest difference between this and Garden Spells is that, at the end, I didn't have the same sense of disappointment that I had to leave these characters. Their stories and conflicts are resolved and there is a sense that they can now ride off into the sunset to enjoy the rest of their lives happily ever after: with Garden Spells, I felt that unusual things were always going to happen to this family and I wanted to know what they were. That is why this isn't quite a five star review: I really enjoyed it, but I didn't LOVE it, a view that was shared by the rest of NYOBG when we discussed it. However, I will read Allen's other books, as soon as I can fit them onto my coffee table.

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