The Story: Sugar, a stand-alone novel by Deirdre Riordan Hall, is about an overweight teenage girl nicknamed Sugar who endures day-to-day struggles with her weight and has to contend with how those around her perceive and treat her. She gets no support at home as she lives with an abusive brother, Skunk, and her bedridden mother; so Sugar turns to food for release and comfort. Eventually there comes a bright spot in her darkness – a boy by the name of Even who looks past Sugar’s size and cares about her as a person. In time, Even helps Sugar learn to love herself and find courage to change her path in life.
My Take: This was a tough read because of the rawness Hall uses to portray the novel’s primary topics, which are negative body image and food addiction. I made myself finish this novel in a day just so I could emotionally and mentally gain closure of the main character’s story. While Sugar isn’t perfect, it strikes all of the right chords to make it a truly heart-breaking, but ultimately fulfilling, read.
The story is told in first person by Mercy (a.k.a. Sugar) Legowski-Gracia, a teenage girl who struggles with her weight and additional pressures from her family, chiefly her neer-do-well brother, Skunk, and her severely obese, bedridden mother. Skunk treats Sugar like his own personal punching bag, both literally and figuratively, and her mother emotionally blackmails Sugar into “caring” for her. (I say “caring” because usually what Sugar’s mother wants is unhealthy food, cigarettes, and someone to verbally lambaste.) Sugar accepts her fate, assuming this is just the way her life is meant to be and there can be no escape.
Sugar is a cathartic novel (rare for the YA market, I feel) in that it really lets you experience what Sugar is going through. You understand why she feels compelled to eat beyond healthy limits to ease her emotional pain. You grasp how food provides her with a temporary release. For people who do not struggle in this way, such as myself, it really opens your eyes into how people can be addicted to food and, more importantly, why and what continues to fuel their addiction. While most people, I think, can find comfort from eating a favorite food at times, persons who struggle with a food addiction see food as their lifeline. Without that tether, they lose all sense of control and feel they have nothing to hold on to when life gets rough. It’s a terrible way to live but it’s an addiction I think most people tend to gloss over because it involves a substance that’s legal for all ages (unlike cigarettes or alcohol).
Similarly, you grit your teeth along with Sugar in her pent-up anger and frustrations, especially as she battles with her weight yet continues to feed her addiction. You want her to leave her destructive home life because Sugar is a good-willed girl and deserves for her life to change for the better. Yet her world remains on repeat as she’s ensnared in a cycle of self-degradation, which leads her to food for comfort, which causes her to dislike herself, which leads her back to food, and so on. Make no mistake – this isn’t an easy read but it’s not all doom and gloom as doses of gentle humor are woven throughout and not every circumstance is dire nor is everyone Sugar encounters an antagonist.
Such as in the case of Even, a teenage boy whom Sugar befriends. (And, yes, his name is misspelled on purpose – that was not a typo.) I disagree with some reviewers on GoodReads that Sugar tries to lose weight for Even’s sake as he never once makes her weight an issue. Instead, he provides a way out of her stagnant home life and offers her a shoulder to cry on. Their dynamic felt genuine and realistic though some portions bordered on being just a tad sappy. To his credit, Even’s kindness towards Sugar isn’t self-serving: he’s not being nice just to use or manipulate her or to boost his ego. He’s just an all-around good kid who doesn’t judge people based on their externals and, for that, he becomes a positive doppelganger of Skunk. Where Skunk verbally and sometimes physically mistreats Sugar, Even never insults her, puts her down, criticizes her, or abuses her in any way. While some of the situations Even and Sugar put themselves in could be morally compromising (such as when they spend the night together in a non-sexual context), it at least shows that Even is a gentleman and cares about Sugar’s heart and her well-being, so much so that he isn’t going to try to seduce her.
One big negative for me was the fact that this novel had to toss in the obligatory tragic/unexpected death scene (a common occurrence in these sorts of novels, I have found). One character is essentially a “red-shirt” who you just know is not going make it to the story’s end.
I had this character pegged from about the halfway point on and it irritated me because I could see this person’s demise before it actually happened. It disappointed me because the death causes Sugar to take several steps back though it eventually drives her to stand on her own. The ending is a bit predicable but allows for a good sense of release for the reader, almost like you’ve been holding your breath the entire time and now you can slowly exhale.
That being said, there were a few other less-than-stellar moments but nothing so glaringly bad that they kept me from enjoying the book. First, there is some teenage drama, which is to be expected based on this novel’s primary audience, and I knew that going in. Thankfully, it’s not all giggling girls or angst-fests as most of the focus is on Sugar’s dismal home life and her moments of serenity with Even, so this isn’t a school day’s novel nor doe-eyed chick lit. Also, the death of one character is glossed over a bit too quickly given the number of pages dedicated to developing this person. Similarly, the cause of death is criminal in nature yet nothing on the law enforcement/legal end is ever explored. Lastly, sometimes the novel was a little too cyclical and I felt some of the scenes of Sugar at home could have been reduced as the point of establishing her environment had already been made. Taken collectively though, these were minor points that didn’t frustrate me too much.
Writing-wise, I was actually surprised by this YA read as most books in the same vein are simplistic in tone and delivery. While Sugar adopts a casual tone that fits its lead narrator, it unabashedly delves into Sugar’s struggles, both inside and out. I, personally, have never dealt with obesity (though sometimes I do catch myself wanting to nosh on junk food when I’m down in the dumps), so glimpsing into the mind of someone who does and how she uses food as an escape was very eye-opening. Granted, this is fiction, but Sugar’s commentary mimics remarks I’ve heard from persons who struggle with food the same way she does. It’s heart-breaking to say the least, and it’s an addiction that doesn’t seem to get much attention or taken very seriously. For some reason, having a drug or an alcohol addiction is seen as a worse problem than a food addiction, yet food can be just as destructive as substance abuse and can be used/abused for the same reasons. I’m not sure how this novel might be taken by someone who is in Sugar’s position, but it certainly seems to take a respectful, introspective approach to a very real struggle.
Language – There are a few profanity-laced moments (some of which involve the f-word) though most of the harsher language is spewed by Skunk and Sugar gets a chance to verbally lash out at some bullies.
Violence – Essentially none. Violence occurs mainly through Skunk’s occasional abuse of Sugar, which goes no further than punching or slapping her. There is also an off-screen death that is discussed but never depicted.
Sexual Content – There is a running dirty joke involving a sausage as well as general talk of teen pregnancy and premarital sex. Likewise, there are two occasions when one of Skunk’s slimeball buddies tries to sexually force himself on Sugar but she fights back both times and succeeds. Lastly, there are times when Sugar and Even spend the night and sleep in the same bed but nothing sexual occurs (to the best of my memory). As a whole, the tone of the novel, its content, and subject matter make it a better fit for older teens (i.e. 16 and up) and adults than for anyone younger.
Overall, Sugar is an emotional roller coaster that compelled me to see how Sugar would eventually rise above her lot in life. While not perfect, the novel is solidly constructed and delivered and the ending is satisfactory for both Sugar and the reader. I’d certainly recommend it though be prepared to be challenged. This might not be an earth-shattering read but it will open up your heart and your head to learning what it’s like for someone with a food addiction though, in the end, there can be hope for a positive change.