Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Review: "Sugar Run" by Mesha Maren

There are some books which fill you with a sense of foreboding the minute you start reading them, sort of the way you may be poised to put your hands over your eyes when watching a scary movie—you know something bad will happen, but you just don't know when.

That's the way I felt while reading Mesha Maren's Sugar Run. This novel about a woman's quest for a new beginning even though she quickly falls into all of her old habits isn't scary, but you can just feel that things could fall off the rails at any minute, and you wish it wouldn't. (Or at least I wished it wouldn't.)

Jodi was sentenced to life in prison when she was 17 years old, in 1989. Unexpectedly, she is released 18 years later, and she has a plan for what to do with this newfound freedom: move back to her childhood home in rural West Virginia and live on her grandmother's land, where she spent the majority of her youth. But first, she is determined to fulfill a promise made before she went to prison: rescue the developmentally and emotionally challenged younger brother of an old friend.

"Coming home was like disappearing in a way, she thought, slipping back into the past. Until a week and a half ago she had thought she would not return here until death—a body shipped to a family that barely remembered it, a body to be laid back into the mountains to rest—but now here she was, not just a body but a jumble of wild thoughts and emotions, coming home."

Less than 24 hours after being released from prison, heading to a small Georgia town, she encounters Miranda, a beautiful but troubled young mother of three, with a taste for pills and alcohol and a complicated relationship with her ex-husband, a once-famous singer. Despite every sign pointing her in the opposite direction, Jodi falls for Miranda, and the two begin planning a future that includes raising Miranda's children and her friend's brother back in Jodi's hometown. It seems almost too good to be true.

But when they return home to West Virginia, nothing is quite as it seems. Jodi and Miranda's idyllic plans are quickly dashed, and it isn't long before Jodi finds herself caught up in her family's potentially dangerous dysfunction, which could send her back to prison, if not endanger her life. Helping care for four children—not to mention a flighty, unstable girlfriend—in an area where same-sex relationships are far from welcomed, leaves Jodi unsure of which end is up and what she should do next.

"She told herself this was different, this was new, but still she could feel the weight of those mountains, even unseen, the heaviness of all that familiarity."

Can you ever truly outrun your mistakes and get a chance for a fresh start, even in the same old place? Where do you find the strength to recognize the signs that you're being pulled down again into another potentially destructive situation, even if there are glimpses of good amidst the chaos? Why doesn't anything work out the way you hope it will?

Switching back and forth between the months leading up to Jodi's arrest and the present, following her release from prison, Sugar Run is a story of a woman searching for second chances but not looking very far, or thinking clearly about what the right decisions are. It's also a story of a woman who really had no chance given the environment in which she was raised, and returning to it doesn't seem like the smartest idea. But can you escape your past?

While nothing horrible happens in the book, there are lots of close calls, and I still had this pervasive sense that everything could fall apart in a matter of minutes. Even though Jodi certainly is to blame for her own situation, the complexities that Maren has given her make her an appealing character despite her faults. She definitely knows how to tell a story and create an environment with tremendously vivid, evocative imagery.

Strangely, given all of the tension I felt while reading the book, the pacing was very slow, almost plodding. I also wasn't sure what Maren was trying to say with her characters—was she saying it's okay to live life the way they did because of their circumstances, or was she simply depicting what happens all too often in impoverished, rural areas?

Sugar Run is quite a debut novel, and it definitely hints at a promising career for Maren. She definitely gives her readers lots to think about!

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