Who is Sugar? She’s the new woman in town — and she clearly does NOT belong, what with her flashy wig and skintight clothes, with wickedness written all over her. The women of Bigelow, Arkansas, in 1955, decide from the start that she is not THEIR kind — and truthfully, she’s not. She’s a whore, plain and simple — and has a hard time seeing herself as anything else.
Torn up from the inside out, Sugar is lost inside a well of anguish and hard luck and arriving in a new town, full of people as black as she is (but who think they’re better than her), and it takes a while for her to feel anything but bitterness. Who finally starts chipping away at Sugar’s tough shell? Pearl, the woman next door, who’s got some anguish of her own. And as the story progresses, these two very unlikely people begin to become friends, not that the town makes it easy for them.
Truthfully, it’s hard for me to know how to judge this book. While I recognize that there is a place in literature for stories that are hard to tell — the stories of people who have had a really, really hard life thrown at them — this one was harder than most. Sugar’s a prostitute, so there’s that — and it’s as graphic as you’d imagine. I loved when we started seeing the softer side of Sugar — but it was so rare and she fought so much against it that you really got the feeling like she was too far gone to really ever change. That part, as much as it frustrated me, felt very real — this gut feeling that you’re getting what you deserve when all you’ve ever received and all you’ve ever known is the dregs of what life has to offer.
Because I’d been warned about its graphic nature, that part didn’t shock me as much as it could have. Certain characters were endearing — Pearl’s husband was someone I’d want to live next door to, and Pearl herself was so much stronger than she knew, willing to stand up for her friend (without ever giving Sugar the impression that her “vocation” was acceptable in any way). I liked those moments when you could tell that Sugar was being a force for change in Pearl’s life (in a mostly good way), and both Sugar and Pearl’s voices felt authentically conflicted and life-worn.
But I didn’t love it. Maybe it’s because there is essentially no redemption for any characters in this story and I find that I personally need that to be able to sort through really difficult stories. Maybe it’s because the back of my book says that it’s about moving to a “place of forgiveness, understanding and, ultimately, grace” and I just did not find that place of forgiveness and grace, I found tragedy upon tragedy with very brief moments of less-tragic and an ending that left a sour taste in my mouth.
Rated: High. You name it, it’s in there.