Today’s team review is from Olga. She blogs here https://www.authortranslatorolga.com
Olga has been reading Sugar And Snails by Anne Goodwin.
This is a remarkably difficult book to review, because although it is not a mystery in the standard sense, there is a secret at the heart of the story, and one that when it is revealed (and I will do my best not to spoil the revelation) has a similar effect to a plot twist. It makes us reconsider all we have read before and realise that the signs were there, but perhaps we put ourselves so much in the protagonist’s shoes that we lost all sense of perspective and objectivity. I am not sure I can share much more of the plot than what the blurb reveals, but I’ll add a few more details. Diana is a university lecturer in Psychology whose Ph.D. thesis had to do with the way teenagers make decisions. By the end of the novel, we get to realise that this topic is strongly linked to Diana’s life story, and she comes to accept that we cannot hide our past behind a locked door and pretend it didn’t happen. As the blurb states, this is a mid-life coming-of-age story, and I must confess that having read a few of those in recent times, it is fast becoming a favourite subgenre of mine.
I cannot discuss all the themes in detail, but I can mention amongst others: childhood trauma and bullying, difficult family relationships, Psychology, university life, middle-age expectations, long-term friendships, middle-age romance, issues of identity, secrets, and lies (or half-truths), guilt and its consequences, prejudice, therapy (or what passed for therapy at some point in the not too distant past)… Although I can’t go into details, for the reasons mentioned above, I should say that the main subject of the book is quite controversial (not so much the subject itself, but how best to approach it and its practicalities), and everybody is bound to have an opinion, no matter how much or how little experience or knowledge they have on this particular matter. From that perspective, I am sure this book would be perfect for book clubs, because the events, the attitudes of the many characters, and the way the story is told will make people eager to engage in discussion.
The book is told in the first person by Diana, and I hesitate to call her an unreliable narrator, although, if we take the story at face value and only think about the plot, there is some of that. She does not give us all the information from the start, but there are reasons why, and she is not so much trying to trick us as trying to trick herself, or rather, trying to fit into the role she has created for herself. The story is not told linearly, because the memories of the past keep intruding into the protagonist’s life due to her present circumstances, but the outline of current events follows a chronological order, and there is never any confusion as to what is happening when. Sometimes we only come to fully understand a memory we have already been witness to later on when we obtain new information and we can review everything from a slightly different perspective, and this is one of the most interesting aspects of the way the story is told and a big asset.
Diana, as a character, might not have a lot in common with many readers (although that was not my case and I identified with quite a few aspects of her current story), but her first-person narration, the way she keeps analysing everything that goes on in her life, her lack of self-assurance and the distinctiveness of her voice are bound to connect with most readers. It is clear that she is trying hard to protect herself, while at the same time being a good friend, a dedicated lecturer, a loving cat owner, and a lonely woman who does not dare allow anybody in because the price to pay could be devastating. There are many other interesting characters whom we meet through Diana’s point of view (her parents, her sister, her brother, her friend Venus [one of my favourites], her other colleagues and friends, her new boss, a university student [who makes her question many things] and her father…) and they all come across as complex human beings, who sometimes make mistakes, but never intentionally. There are also a number of professionals (psychiatrists, therapists, social workers, teachers) who make an appearance, and although we don’t get to know them as well, they represent different models or options of therapy. Some might seem old-fashioned now, but unfortunately, they reflect the situation in the past and some recent welcome changes.
I have described the way the story is told, and the writing not only flows well, despite the changes in the timeline, but it is also engaging, moving, and gripping. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an easy story to read from an emotional point of view; there are many dreadful things that take place in the book, and people who are at a fragile or vulnerable moment in life, and those who might have had difficult dealings with mental health services or suffer from severe mental health problems might find it a particularly painful read. Despite those caveats, readers cannot help getting caught up in the story, and the way the protagonist slowly comes to terms with who she is and gains insight into what is really important for her. Perhaps an easy life and peace of mind should not be her main priorities, and being true to herself is fundamental, but reaching that realisation is far from straightforward. There are many quotes I have highlighted and inspiring paragraphs, but I worry about letting the cat out of the bag, so rather than risking that, I would recommend that anybody with doubts check a sample of the writing, to see if it suits their taste.
The ending… I enjoyed it. I think it is perfect. It does not over-elaborate the point and leaves things open to readers’ imaginations, but it does so on an optimistic and hopeful note, and it does feel like a true resolution for the character. What else should we ask for?
In summary, this is a novel about a controversial subject that deals with it in a sensitive and truly insightful manner. It has an unforgettable central character, and it is beautifully written as well as inspiring and hopeful. I have included some warnings in the body of the review, but I am sure many readers will enjoy it and it will make them stop to think about the real world situation many people find themselves in and, perhaps, reconsider their opinions. Ah, I recommend reading until the end and learning a bit more, not only about the author but also about the publisher, Inspired Quill, their mission, and their contributions to charity (a 10% of all profits will be donated to charity). Oh, and the cover is a work of art. Beautiful.
At fifteen, she made a life-changing decision. Thirty years on, it’s time to make another.
When Diana escaped her misfit childhood, she thought she’d chosen the easier path. But the past lingers on, etched beneath her skin, and life won’t be worth living if her secret gets out.
As an adult, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, the city that transformed her life. She’ll lose Simon if she doesn’t join him. She’ll lose herself if she does.
Sugar and Snails charts Diana’s unusual journey, revealing the scars from her fight to be true to herself. A triumphant mid-life coming-of-age story about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.