by Mesha Maren
Eighteen years after being sentenced to life in prison in the late ’80s at the age of 17, a lawyer takes interest in Jodi McCarty’s case, resulting in her release. Sugar Run bounces between two periods: running off with her lover, Paula, to find happiness and easy money on the fringes of society in the lead-up to her incarceration and her attempts to carve out a simple life on her late grandmother’s West Virginia property after getting out. The meat of the story involves the latter, when Jodi gets romantically entangled with a troubled young mother of three boys while making good on her promise to save Paula’s brother, Ricky, from their abusive home. Jodi soon discovers that back taxes mean she no longer owns her grandmother’s land, but she and her new makeshift family squat in the dilapidated cabin on the long abandoned property while she tries to find a way to get it back legally. In the meantime, money’s running short, she starts to feel the tug back to a life of crime, and the appearance of Ricky’s angry outbursts are starting to make her worry for their safety.
The writing throughout Sugar Run is great, overall. Maren gives us cautious glimpses of moments, of images. We’re given enough detail to cultivate interest, but then we back away, letting things percolate before we revisit them and build on them. And the author uses exposition from differing viewpoints to construct well-rounded characters––playing how one sees herself against another’s idea of her to better flesh out both. Each aspect works to help readers sympathize with Jodi throughout, and they create a sense of verisimilitude in the world Maren describes.
But then something changes. Endings are hard. My best understanding of making something feel satisfying in the end is to ramp up tension or action and make the reader feel the stakes, make them feel that the tension or action is relevant or meaningful. But you have to make things logically progress from where we previously were, and ramping up without hurting immersion is a difficult line to walk. Some authors lean too heavily into the ramp and end up diverging from the narrative in a way that feels unreal, such as in Kevin Hardcastle’s In the Cage or Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die––both apt comparisons to Sugar Run, as all three have such a wonderful, cohesive flow up until the divergence at the climax. However, the difference is within this divergence. In the case of Sugar Run, we remain true to things that were foreshadowed, but I believe the trouble is that multiple sources of tension come to a head without stakes being strongly felt. What results is more of a deflating, closer to what occurred in Andrew Sullivan’s Waste.
So, while it is unfortunate that things came together awkwardly to create an ending I found unsatisfying, keep in mind that so much on the way is still engaging and atmospheric. It’s too bad it wasn’t the whole package, but maybe it’s still enough.