Sugar by Bernice L McFadden

I read this book in October 21 on holiday, picking it up because it was a Richard and Judy book club choice and have now reread it because it is our next book for discussion in the book club.

Sugar is the story of a black woman blowing into the small town of Bigelow in the 1950s and causing a stir with her way of dressing, walking and earning money. She inherited a house next door to Pearl and Joe, who had lost their daughter 15 year previously in a vicious murder that was never solved. Pearl and Sugar slowly become friends overtime, both gaining something they needed from the friendship but at a personal cost for each. I enjoyed the book on holiday and enjoyed rereading it but had forgotten a lot of the trauma of Sugar’s life.

The book opens with the brutal murder of Pearl and Joe’s daughter and this frames the whole story. The killer is never caught, although is known at the end of the book, and Pearl becomes so stuck in grief that she doesn’t really exit it until making friends with Sugar. The murder highlights the life of people in the town with no expectations of help from police or wider society. It also perpetuates the hardship of life – you may not be living and working on the railroads or in sugar cane fields now, but the same behaviours from white towards black people still exist; people being brutally beaten and killed. You can’t help but asking when does this end?

Pearl and Sugar’s friendship is the defining relationship of the book, although there are others that are well-depicted. I enjoyed the gossipy, slightly malicious old friends of Pearl and some of the women Sugar meets in her life. But Pearl and Sugar awaken in each other things that make them see and enjoy life more. Pearl starts to laugh, try out new experiences and gets Sugar to church and Sugar starts to notice sunrise and nature and life without earning a living from men. But these experiences make both women vulnerable leading Sugar to leave and our imagination to decide what happens to Pearl.

One of the things that struck me was the underlying story plot – how it is quite a common one. Someone blows into a small town and upsets the equilibrium and often blows out again leaving things changed. It reminded me of a similar structure although completely different story, Chocolat by Joanna Trollope. I have read this type of story many times but just can’t think of any other titles at the moment!

Our questions for book club are:

Why open with the murder of Jude?

Why does Sugar and Pearl’s relationship work?

Was the book funny?

Why did women in Bigelow reject Sugar?

How does the author present the relationship of Joe and Pearl?

Were you happy with the ending?

Why was the book rejected 73 times before it was published?

My question that I would add would be – Which is the best front cover for the book and why?

I’ll add more thoughts after the discussion.

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