Review of “Sugar” by Bernice L. McFadden

Bernice McFadden reports in an interview that she had 73 rejection notices for this book, and that when it was finally published in 2000, it was pigeonholed as a “black” book and marketed strictly to African American readers. Other reviews may point out there are some mysteries associated with this shattering and touching story, but to me, the publishing and marketing decisions are the biggest ones.

In 1955, Sugar Lacey moved to Bigelow, Arkansas after an unhappy childhood with no parents and no prospects aside from prostitution. This is a woman who has spent her life in emotional isolation and in pain, and it shows in the insolence and defiance with which she now confronts the world that scorns her. My heart went out to the girl inside the woman who wanted so badly to love and be loved, that when the opportunity came her way, she was afraid, and only wanted to run.

The women in the town reject Sugar without even knowing her; they resent and fear the effects her tight clothes and her flowing wigs will have on their men, and they allow this fear to overwhelm any Christian tendencies they claim to have. But Pearl Taylor, who lives next door, is drawn to her new neighbor; Sugar reminds Pearl of her daughter Jude, who was brutally murdered fifteen years before. A relationship between the two women that begins reluctantly but grows into something mutually affirming and supportive changes both of their lives. Pearl seeks to bring something of Christian redemption to Sugar, and Sugar strives to bring some of the joyfulness back to Pearl that was lost when Jude was killed.

But Sugar’s past keeps chasing after her, because victimizers never forget an easy mark. Pearl, as a force of good, has to do battle with one of Sugar’s old “johns,” a personification of evil, for Sugar’s body and soul.

Discussion: In Sugar, there are elements of other authors and books that come to mind: a little of the poetic obscurity – especially in the beginning – like Toni Morrison; the improbable friendship of Celie and Shug from The Color Purple; and the petty and carping women’s card club from The Help that could be a photographic reverse negative of the group that gets together in Sugar. Most poignantly, the character of Sugar is reminiscent of the character of Bess from DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy. In Sugar, all of these influences or similarities are blended into a unique medley to create a different and lovely song, albeit one played out in the sorrowful and contemplative notes of the blues, with some enraptured riffs of jazz from time to time.

The omniscient narrative voice allows the reader to become aware of the complicated secrets of the characters’ pasts, and the hidden interrelationships of the characters in the present. The protagonists are not so privileged. But to me, this is the best of both worlds: the lives of the characters remain messy and real, while the reader is satisfied with knowing what actually happened.

Evaluation: There is so much I recognized in this book: grief, fear of love, cruelty, dignity, pettiness, compassion, and all kinds of strength in women who didn’t even know they had it. McFadden is a truly talented author. It’s a shame it is only now, on the ten year anniversary of her initial publication, that she is getting some recognition.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton Adult, 2000

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21 Responses to Review of “Sugar” by Bernice L. McFadden

  1. Julie P. says:

    I am glad to see that she is getting some coverage of this book from the book blogging community. It is a shame that it took her so long to get it noticed.

  2. diane says:

    What a great review. I have this to read/review as well but just have not done so yet.

  3. Aarti says:

    Excellent review, as usual! I have this already on my radar, but you put it on my wishlist 🙂 I am glad the author kept trying after so much rejection!

  4. bermudaonion says:

    Wow, that sounds like some book. I do wonder what they think when they market books sometimes.

  5. Darlene says:

    Great review. I was looking at this the other day for my eReader and thought it seemed really worth reading. I think I’ll go back and purchase it now.

  6. Ti says:

    This book is a fave here at CSUN. Many of the Pan-African Studies professors use it in their classes. I wanna say that there is a movie too but I could be wrong.

  7. Nymeth says:

    I saw a review of this the other day that made me add it to my wishlist (sadly I can’t remember where), and now thanks to you I’m moving it up. It sounds like something I’d really love. What a pity it’s been pigeon-holed, but hooray for book bloggers like you for bringing it to our attention!

  8. Staci says:

    That is a shame for sure. Maybe your excellent written review of this title will bring some light on what sounds to be a great story!

  9. Sandy says:

    I was offered this book, but it got lost in the Maui shuffle and I didn’t respond. Shame on me, because it sounds like a wonderful book. And your review is perfect…well-written and insightful!

  10. EL Fay says:

    Much as I’d like to work in publishing, there are times the industry just infuriates me. Plenty of black people read books written by white authors. So why can’t it be the other way around? It’s an insult to readers everywhere.

    This book sounds excellent. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  11. Dawn says:

    73 rejections! McFadden deserves a medal for her persistence; and I’m so glad that she’s putting effort into another big push for the book 10 years after initial publication.

    SUGAR is on my list to read and review later this month. I especially appreciate your comments about the narration — sounds like a great/impactful story that will satisfy me as a reader.

  12. Jenners says:

    I love that she never ever gave up. I think most people would have given up long before 73 rejections.

  13. Lisa says:

    I read something recently about the marketing of books strictly to African-Americans. It’s such a shame to assume that readers will care–seems to perpetrate racism in a way. Love that she didn’t give up.

  14. ds says:

    What a beautiful review. I will have to read this book–it deserves a wide audience, especially after 73 rejections.

  15. Margot says:

    This book has not been on my radar but it sounds like a wonderful work. I liked the part of your review where you compared this books to other more familiar works. Based on those books, I’d like to read this one.

  16. I really enjoyed Sugar as well, it was definitely well-written and such a fascinating story. I do hope McFadden gets all the recognition she deserves 🙂

  17. I’ve only just heard of this book, but it sounds really good. Thanks for the review.

    –Anna

  18. stacybuckeye says:

    Looks great. That is interesting about the publishing history of the book.

  19. susan says:

    Jill,

    Did the sex overwhelm the read for you? I ask because one reviewer said she couldn’t get to the heart of the story for the sex. I know how you feel about gratuitous language so I’d like to know if you felt the sex was problematic.

    • The opening scene was a little much, and probably more than the author needed to do, I thought. But after that, there wasn’t much explicit going on. I knew in advance one just had to get by the opening scene!

  20. Meagan says:

    Unfortunately I’d never heard of this author but fortunately for me my moher just turned me onto her and so great!!! I’m looking forward to reading sugar and many more of her books!!!

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