With her eponymous anti-heroine, debut novelist McFadden breaks the mold of a venerable stereotype. Here, the hooker with a heart of gold is instead a hooker with a past so tarnished no amount of polishing can change her fate. As a baby, Sugar is abandoned by her mother and raised by a trio of prostitutes who run an Arkansas bordello. Turning tricks at age 12, and leaving town four years later to try her luck in St. Louis and then Detroit, brings more degradation, along with an ever-hardening heart. Upon her mother's death in 1955, Sugar is willed a modest home in Bigelow, Ark., but when she moves into town, and supports herself the only way she knows, the female population rises in wrath against her. All except Pearl, Sugar's next-door neighbor, who more than a decade ago lost her beloved daughter, Jude, to a vicious rapist/murderer. Pearl is struck by Sugar's uncanny likeness to Jude, and is determined to become Sugar's friend in spite of vocal disapproval. Although the two women are opposites in nearly every way, they bring out the best in each other: Sugar convinces Pearl to loosen up and accompany her to a Saturday night juke joint, and Sugar promises to go to church for two months of Sundays. Hypocritical gossip spreads among the townsfolk and tension grows when it turns out that nearly every married man in Bigelow pays a visit to Sugar, leaving the apparently frigid wives planning to run Sugar out of town. Pearl gives it her best shot to transform Sugar, but both women's painful pasts come back to haunt them in a crescendo of violent reenactments, betrayals and surprising revelations leading to a poignant, bittersweet ending. While hampered by a forced and compressed backstory, a surfeit of maudlin moments and some overwriting that is inadvertently funny, this ambitious first novel will appeal to readers who can appreciate Sugar's determination to come to terms with her past and fashion a viable future.
McFadden's debut novel is an earthy slice of life in a small Southern town. When Sugar, a prostitute who never had a chance for love or a normal life, moves into the house next door to Pearl, a matron who lost her spirit after the murder of her daughter 15 years before, the two women form a bond strong enough to withstand even the most vicious gossip. But secrets from both of their pasts may prove too much even for these two compelling women, and Sugar must choose between her dreams for something better and the people she has learned to love. McFadden captures the full character of small-town life and the strengths and weaknesses of its people. This novel of friendship and loss is an excellent addition to the growing body of work by young African American writers. Recommended for all libraries. —Ellen Flexman, Indianapolis-Marion Cty. P.L.
African-American McFadden presents a sometimes schematically plotted but sweet debut tale of an unlikely friendship between two women. Set in a fictional small town of 1950s Arkansas, the story vividly evokes the life and time of a community still haunted by racism. The people are poor, work hard, and have been so badly treated by whites that fifteen years ago when teenaged Jude Taylor was found murdered and her body horribly mutilated, it was assumed the perpetrator was a white man. Pearl, Jude's mother, never recovered from the event; she retreated into herself, dressed like an old woman, and was sexually cool to husband Joe. But when Sugar moves next door, her life begins to change. Sugar, born in a nearby town, soon scandalizes the locals because she sits naked in front of her windows and has men visitors. Pearl, reluctant to believe that Sugar is a whore, and affected by Sugar's striking resemblance to Jude, tries to make friends. She eventually wins a hardened Sugar over, and the two women share their life's stories. Sugar's mother abandoned her in a local bordello run by the black Lacey sisters; Sugar was raped there, became a whore, and then moved north. Learning that she had inherited this house, she came back to Arkansas. Pearl talks about Jude as she has never done before, lets Sugar give her a fashion makeover, and goes to a club to hear Sugar sing, in return for getting Sugar to attend church. But Sugar is beaten up by an old acquaintance named Lappy, and, though she recovers, her resolution to change her ways falters. As ends are too neatly tidied up, and as the truth comes out about Sugar's parentage and Jude's murderer, Pearl faces another loss as Sugar moves on. A gritty but heartwarming celebration of friendship by a promising new writer.
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