My lovely book-gifting mother gave me a nice, healthy stack of books for Christmas and among them was The Sugar Queen. I read and loved Sarah Addison Allen's first novel, Garden Spells, last year on the recommendation of my good friend Michelle. Incidentally, I actually gave my mom Garden Spells for Christmas so there was some fun karmic reciprocity goin' on there. Garden Spells was the perfect autumn read and I finished it itching to get my hands on Allen's second book, which, as it turns out, is the perfect winter read. I love it when my book and the season serendipitously mesh. Set in a small ski resort town in North Carolina with magical snowflakes falling and the smell of peppermint in the air, I had no interest in resisting its spell. I just sat back and let The Sugar Queen carry me away for a couple of wintry nights.
Josey Cirrini loves candy. And I mean Josey LOVES candy. Sweets, snacks, baked goods of any kind. She keeps them in a stash in her closet and retreats there whenever she's feeling particularly anxious or down. Which is pretty much every day, several times a day. You see Josey lives alone with her aging, patrician mother in their aging, empty mansion. And every day her mother reminds her how plain she is, how she should never wear anything but black or white but for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy no RED, and how she was such a trying child and should spend the rest of her life making it up to her poor, beautiful, widowed mother. Gah. The only bright spot in her day is the moment when their mailman Adam walks up to her door to deliver the mail. Then there's Chloe. Lovely, orphaned, loves to read, lost in love Chloe. She runs a small fast food stand in the local city courthouse lobby, lives with her lawyer boyfriend Jake, and dreams of owning her own home one day after having had to sell the only home she'd ever known when her grandparents passed away. Neither of these girls sees her life changing anytime soon. But on one fateful day a local tramp shows up in Josey's closet and Chloe discovers her boyfriend cheated on her but won't tell her with whom. And, just like that, everything changes.
Like its predecessor, The Sugar Queen is one part magical realism, one part fairy tale, and one part contemporary fiction. And like before, I fell immediately under its spell. I don't know if I was just in the mood for something pretty and sweet and romantic in the dead of winter, or if there's something about Allen's kind, honest characters that speaks to me, but I absolutely loved this book. Possibly even more than Garden Spells, I think, because I liked Josey so much. With her unselfconscious awesomeness, her straightforward goodness, she was vulnerable but never beaten. The slow, pleasantly-deceit-free way she and Adam negotiated their relationship was delightful to me. And Josey and Chloe's friendship, in particular, was extremely well done. I love how helping and being needed by Chloe makes Josey brave. How Chloe recognized Josey for what she was and took her in even when she was the one who was slowly but surely drowning. In a Sarah Addison Allen book, you can always count on a little organic magic and my favorite instance of this in The Sugar Queen was undoubtedly the way books literally popped up around Chloe whenever she needed them. For example:
She could remember very clearly the first time it happened to her. Being an only child raised by her great-grandparents on a farm miles from town, she was bored a lot. When she ran out of books to read, it only got worse. She was walking by the creek along the wood line at the end of the property one day when she was twelve, feeling mopey and frustrated, when she saw a book propped up against a willow tree.She walked over and picked it up. It was so new the spine creaked and popped when she opened it. It was a book on card tricks, full of fun things she could do with the deck of cards her great-grandmother kept in a drawer in the kitchen for her weekly canasta game.She called out, asking if anyone was there. No one answered. She didn't see any harm in looking through the book, so she sat under the tree by the creek and read as much as she could before it got dark. She wanted to take it with her when her great-grandmother called her home, but she knew she couldn't. The owner of the book would surely want it back. So she reluctantly left it by the tree and ran home, trying to commit to memory everything she'd read.After dinner, Chloe took the deck of cards out of the kitchen drawer and went to her bedroom to try some of the tricks. She tried for awhile, but she couldn't get them right without following the pictures in the book. She sighed and gathered the cards she'd spread out on the floor. She stood, and that's when she saw the book, the same book she'd left by the creek, on her nightstand.For awhile after that, she thought her great-grandparents were surprising her with books. She'd find them on her bed, in her closet, in her favorite hideouts around the property. And they were always books she needed. Books on games or novels of adventure when she was bored. Books about growing up as she got older. But when her great-grandparents confronted her about all the books she had and where did she get the money to buy them, she realized they weren't the ones doing it.The next day, under her pillow, she found a book on clever storage solutions. It was exactly what she needed, something to show her how to hide her books.She accepted it from then on. Books liked her. Books wanted to look after her.
You can imagine the smile of contentment on my face after I read that passage. It was clear this book and I would get on well. And we did. I absolutely loved it. And you can bet I will be picking up Ms. Allen's upcoming third novel, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, the day it comes out.