Content warning: brief fat shaming and a controlling parent who manipulates her child by belittling her.
Many of my blog friends squeed when they heard I was going to read The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen. Apparently, Addison Allen is a beloved author, whom I’ve never heard of! The Sugar Queen was added to my Fat Reads challenge because, if I remember correctly, it is included on several Goodreads lists of “plus-size protagonists” or other such lists. Side note: why are those lists STILL full of erotica? Hooray, fat girls, but we’re not fantasy fodder. While The Sugar Queen is not focused on fat, it is a beautiful novel.
Josey is a wealthy girl whose now-deceased father made their North Carolina town prosperous by setting up a ski resort. He was in his late 60s when Josey was born, and Josey’s mother was 47, making this an unconventional set of parents. Side note: When I was in elementary school, I knew a girl whose father was in his 40s, and I figured he was so old he might as well be dust. It’s nice to see a book that shows different kinds of families. The Sugar Queen begins with Josey in her room, delighted that it’s getting frosty outside. But when she opens her closet, there sits Della Lee, a waitress who is “rough and flashy and did whatever she wanted.” Della Lee becomes the pervading clairvoyant in Josey’s closet, guiding Josey into the arms of new relationships, causing the 27-year-old heiress to be braver. As is, Josey is meek and obedient because when she was a child, she was the most horrible child in the whole town — that is, until her father died — and no one has forgotten. Josey feels she must make up 9 years of bad behavior to her mother by being a companion/servant, one who must care for her mother until the mother’s death and experience no life of her own until then.
The Sugar Queen masterfully uses magical realism, and I love me some magical realism. Josey has a lucky red sweater, but at first it’s easy to think she has some lucky object like the rest of us. But does the item of clothing have power? Josey can also sense when the mail carrier is coming, a man named Adam whom Josey has loved (the book says loved, not crushed on) for three years. Another main character named Chloe has books appear out of thin air. They are meant to be the exact book she needs in that exact moment. We meet Chloe when she’s kicking her boyfriend out for admitting an instance of infidelity that happened months ago. Out of thin air appears Finding Forgiveness. Chloe keeps throwing the book away, but it follows her around. Then Old Love, New Direction appears, and Chloe thinks, “Good Lord, [Finding Forgiveness] had called in reinforcements.” You may think the magical realism sounds gimmicky, but it fit seamlessly into the lives of the characters.
The writing is quite funny throughout! Saucy, playful. And I especially love the smells. As a creative writer who reads constantly, I find smells are the weakest of the sense used in fiction. Who honestly smells like pine and cinnamon, or “licorice and old books.” If I have to sit there and struggle to put the smells together, it’s not working. Josey’s mother is superstitious about “unwanted types” getting into her house, so she has peppermint oil made for the maids to put in all the windows and doorways. This has been going on for years. Thus, Josey smells like peppermint all the time. Makes sense! Della Lee, when found in the closet, smells like cigarettes and river water. Also makes sense, given her wet, ragged appearance and background as a wild bar fly. The smells bring the novel a new layer of life.
Since I chose this book for my Fat Reads challenge, I must comment on that. On page 1, Josey is relieved that it’s getting cold because thin summer dresses make her look like “a loaf of white bread wearing a belt.” Now, this is a description, and Josey doesn’t berate herself, so I accept it. So what if she does look like bread?
But the story is more about food than fat. Yet, food is a complex matter with fat people. We’re told so often to diet that we end up food deprived, and this leads to bingeing, feeling ashamed of eating any type of food in public (even fruits and vegetables), and eating in secrecy. The last one is Josey’s thing; she has a false wall in her closet with food and soda hidden in stockpile. Della Lee uses this secret as blackmail to prevent Josey from telling anyone about Della Lee hiding out. As Josey and Chloe become friends, Josey attempts eating in public:
Slowly, she began to relax. No one was watching. She was eating in pubic and it didn’t feel bad. It felt good, in fact. Wonderful. Maybe it was the food itself. Maybe it was the normalcy of it all.
It’s pretty common for people, fat and thin, who deprive themselves of food for dieting to worship their food and almost eroticize it. Only when we stop restricting our eating does food lose power. Foods we would “die for” become flavorless. We can have one piece of cake . . . instead of 5 rice cakes plus 3 glasses of water before we “cave in” and eat half a cake, too. Josey’s mother wants Josey to watch her figure, so we get classic restrictive eating in public and bingeing in secrecy. I like the realism of this. It made me think about my own relationship to food. While the novel wasn’t focused on Josey’s fat and the way she moves in public (stairs, chairs, clothes, seat belts), I did appreciate this look into eating in secrecy.
I couldn’t put down The Sugar Queen thanks to its characters, delicious plot, magical realism, and sensory details.