Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sugar Time, by Jane Adams - Review

Finding the Right Label
A "coming of age" story is defined by Robert Harris of as:
A type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence.

Now, I don't know who Robert Harris is or whether is any kind of authority, but it seems like a reasonable working definition to me.

So what is the name for books on the other side of adulthood? What comes after the genre romance happily-ever-after, which frequently is marked by a wedding, pregnancy, the beginnings of career super-stardom, or some combination thereof. What happens with the kids are grown, the tumbling honey-colored locks are turning gray and thin, the improbably pneumatic bosoms are drooping, and the type-A alpha hero goes into cardiac arrest at age 60 while he's running that venture capital empire? What's the "coming of old age" literary tradition?

Well, Sugar Time self-referentially introduced me to the term "hag lit," which if you ask me is pretty damn unappealing. Nancy Thayer, author of The Hot Flash Club, explains in a Columbia Journalist article, “It comes from the Greek meaning Holy. A thousand years ago, Hagia Sophia meant goddess of wisdom. What we’re becoming is goddesses of wisdom.” Hmmm. Nice try, I guess, but it's still not catchy and I'm not sure I want to dance to it.

I'm NOT a Baby Boomer, Dammit
I was so pleased when I heard about Douglas Coupland's Generation X. Finally, a demographic of my own! However, when "they" talk about children's literature, they say that readers are typically the age group behind the subject matter-- tweens like to read about teens, teens like to read about older teens and adults. Since I started reading romance at the ripe old age of 12 or so, I'm pretty open to reading something in this new genre, too (and I do think it's a new genre, though I'm sure there are pioneers who are there already).

Sugar and I got off to a bit of a rough start though. First off: Sugar. Sugar Kane. Seriously? Whatever. The name was overly twee and didn't seem to suit the character, who was certainly not especially sweet. I half expected her to turn out to be Erika Kane's long lost sister or something. (Though come to think of it, perhaps the reference isn't an accident. The character of Erika Kane remains a femme fatale now for almost 40 years, since her debut in 1970. Ooops-- tangent, sorry).

Second: Sugar is a very particular character type, one that I'm rather familiar with through the magic of TV and novels, but that I've never actually encountered in real life: she's the wise-cracking, fast-talking bi-coastal Jewish woman who's "in TV". She makes me think of Rose Marie from The Dick Van Dyke Show, or maybe even Lucille Ball. Sugar is characterized as someone who uses humor to keep people at a distance, and intentional or not, I was put off at first.

Cut to the Chase Already
Eventually, I did warm up to Sugar. The first couple of chapters were fairly introspective, but I liked it more when she started to interact with the other characters. Throughout the book, the main voice is Sugar's, in the first person, often interior, but once she started doing things, rather than thinking about things, it got more interesting. ;)

I want to go back to Prof. Harris' definition again and re-iterate that this kind of story seems to be a bookend to the "coming of age." If the one is a disillusionment and loss of innocence, this story is about overcoming cynicism and regaining a belief in love. It's a reminder that even if it might be too late for some things -- maybe being the next Mick Jagger or the first woman president is off the table-- life is full of possibility, no matter your age.

There's a lot going on here besides the relationship, and I find that completely appropriate for this phase of life-- falling in love when you're a bit older is still a pretty great ride, but I don't think it's as all-encompassing at 60 as it is at 20.

Bottom line is, this *is* a romance--so sez me-- and I hope I'm not spoilering when I say we *do* get a romantic HEA. It does carry the sense that the "ever after" might not be as indefinite as those tumble-tressed genre romance heroines get. Some of the obstacles between the hero and heroine are also different than their younger counterparts'... but some of them are the same. Trust, career, balancing obligations, family complications -- relatable stuff here, for any demographic.

What Others Are Saying
Mary at Books Gardens and Dogs
Suzanne Braun Levine
That's a Novel Idea

Seems to be early days for reviews on this book, so let me just leave you with the author herself. I pulled this from her website-- she speaks very eloquently about what Sugar is all about:


Pam said...

This is a great review. I think, sometimes, I end up enjoy the books even more when I have a rough start. the redemption factor seems to weigh more heavily than those books I enjoy the entire ride.

Anonymous said...

i was riveted by the first chapter, maybe because i too had what i thought was a heart attack. i wish i had as good a sense of humor about it as sugar did. i laughed and cried my way all through this book and highly recommend it. few writers are as honest as adams is about women and aging. i've read some of her nonfiction books and they are just as witty and straight shooting even when the topic is a difficult one.


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