"She'd read a romantic book and thought maybe someday life would be like that, but it never seemed like women in books had jobs and families and worries -- things that made it hard to look around for somebody who might be fun, might want to see if where they were headed in life was the same destination." (79)
This passage defines a theme in Karin Kallmaker's newest romance, Sugar. Kallmaker, arguably the best-selling writer of lesbian romances, contrasts images of a "traditional romance" (if such a thing can be said to be portrayed in lesbian writing) with the realities of love as it exists in everyday life. The lead character, Sugar Sorenson, is a talented, intelligent woman in her thirties struggling to establish her own specialty bakery business in Seattle's post-Dotcom-boom. The action opens when Sugar's home is destroyed by fire and her plans for competing in a city-wide "Cook Off" contest, with its related monetary prize and boost in notoriety, are seriously threatened.
After months of no social life, Sugar suddenly finds herself under the romantic notice of not one, but three attractive, dynamic women. There is a gentle but strong social worker named "Tree," a tall, dark and handsome firefighter named "Charlie" Bronson, and the elegant and vivacious television producer named Emily. Their combined energy is almost more than Sugar can juggle after her long, self-imposed solitude, not to mention the stress of the fire. For a time, Sugar is confused because her apartment is not the only fire she is feeling. The sexual tension is palpable and Kallmaker serves readers a few deliciously hot scenes. Sugar tries to decide which woman really attracts her -- and, more importantly she realizes -- which woman's life is headed in the same direction as Sugar's.
With nowhere to go Sugar finds herself returning to her maternal grandmother's house and braces for the onslaught of judging, preaching and meddling that characterized her grandmother while she was growing up. But something has changed dramatically and Sugar discovers that she perhaps didn't know her grandmother as well as she thought. There are assorted complications and mis-communications to occur in the weeks following the fire and Sugar's life does not turn out as she'd expected.
Food and baking flow through the novel in many ways. Descriptions of complex baking projects occur through much of Sugar's day as well as the steady, comfort baking of Sugar's grandmother. Further, Sugar's world view is often cooking related with Emily's eyes being "the blue of four drops of food coloring into a quarter-cup of sugar" (p7) and a woman is "hotter than Tabasco." (132)
Sugar is a kind of "every lesbian" and the issues she and her friends deal with are those that most of us face in our day-to-day lives. Kallmaker's Sugar does not follow the "story book romance" formula; however, she plays with its themes. Even the cover art, which is reminiscent of a 1950s "happy home maker" image, tweaks at this "ideal."
Kallmaker's writing is charming entertainment. Her wry wit and gentle humor prompt smiles and quiet chuckles, as when Sugar dresses for her first date in months to discover "Good God in heaven, how long had that enormous black hair been growing out of her chin?" (p63) Or when Sugar mentions that she'd heard Charlie and Tree had dated for a time, and is told "We did not. We met at agreed upon places and argued." (p182)
In many ways, Sugar is a return to some of Kallmaker's earlier romances, like Painted Moon or Making up for Lost Time. However, if it is a return, it is not without the maturity that her writing continues to develop. Peopled with real women who are grounded in the realities of life and willing to accept the risk of love, Kallmaker's "romance" provides readers with simple, touching moments. As Sugar reflects, "The world seemed peacefully asleep. It was just her and the moon and the scent of Emily on her fingertips." (111) Sugar is a lovely dessert of a book made with real eggs, butter, and no doubt, chocolate. Light and fun it is, yet it's not an artificial confection. Readers of the lesbian romance genre will want to lick the spoon.