Simon & Schuster (2006)
248 pages, hardcover.
This book seems ubiquitously hailed. I may be the last to read it.
Annemarie Wilcox, or Shug as her family calls her, is beginning to think there’s nothing worse than being twelve. She’s too tall, too freckled, and way too flat-chested. Shug is sure that there’s not one good or amazing thing about her. And now she has to start junior high, where the friends she counts most dear aren’t acting so dear anymore — especially Mark, the boy she’s known her whole life through. Life is growing up all around her, and all Shug wants is for things to be like they used to be. How is a person supposed to prepare for what happens tomorrow when there’s just no figuring out today? ~dust jacket
Ready or not, change is coming to Annemarie Wilcox. She is changing physically, she’s entering junior high, and things are ripe for collapsing at home. Jenny Han captures the youth of a small town American girl, a southern girl, no less. The honeyed rhythm of the text is a pleasure. And nothing about the story feels contrived, even as it curves into a beautiful ending that takes reflection from the beginning.
The beginning of Shug feels like a sweet and relatively uncomplicated life. But there is bitter amidst the sweet. Han creates a powerful build-up, orchestrates a successful explosion, and then settles into the calming aftermath where the consequences remain steeped in the reality the book maintains throughout.
When something that terrible, that horrible happens to you, you don’t want to talk about it with anyone. You want to bury it deep inside you and let it rest in peace. You want to forget it ever happened. You want to stay home from school. (227)
Shug is one character a reader will not easily forget. Her encounters are full of humor and heart. She is flawed, and at times difficult to like because you want her to be above that response or wiser, but that makes her all the more endearing. Her assumptions aren’t always correct, but true to the character. She isn’t an adult omniscient third, she is a 12 year old first-person narrator. And really, some of her assumptions are just plain human and said ignorance or flaws are subject to any age.
“Elaine is Korean American, and she is the only Korean American at our school. It gives her a glamorous sort of mystique that no one born in our town could ever possess. She makes being different cool.” (68)
Obliquely noted, left without response, remarks upon the casual ignorance of a culture one is born into:
“I told Mairi that she’s so lucky to have a friend from a different culture,” Mrs. Stevenson continues. “I want you to teach her all about where you come from. Maybe she could even learn some Chinese! Imagine that, my baby girl speakin’ Chinese.”
“Oh, I’m not Chinese, Mrs. Stevenson. I’m Korean, Korean American,” Elaine says. “And I’m actually from New York.”
Mrs. Stevenson’s smile doesn’t waver. “Well, Korean, then. You could teach her Korean.”
Elaine smiles back. “Well, I’m not that great myself, but I could try.” (180)
Where another’s perspective inform Annemarie’s perceptions (a not uncommon occurrence in relationships between people in this book (and elsewhere).
Elaine: “Do you know how many times I’ve wished I look like you?”
Bewildered, I say, “Why would you want to look like me?”
“Think about it, Annemarie. I’m the only Korean American at our school. I’m the only Asian at our school.”
“So you have no idea how hard that is.”
“But you’re popular; everyone likes you.”
Elaine shrugs. “It doesn’t mean anything. They could have hated me just as easily. People will love you or hate you for being different, but who’s to say which way it’ll go? You never know. It’s completely arbitrary. And anyway, it’s not like no one’s ever called me names.” (236)
Han populates this novel with marvelously complicated characters, doing so with a great deal of charm and unflinching observations. She is so deft, the novel seethes with the simultaneity of human beauty and ugliness without interrupting the superbly set pace.
I appreciated how Han unapologetically stares at the machinations of friendship, romance, and social survival—especially in the small town setting. In a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and rarely do people leave (and if so, almost always come back), a person can’t just dismiss someone and they fade off into non-existence. If an enemy is made, the high school or city isn’t big enough to slough off an encounter and move on as successfully as is so often portrayed in other novels of this type. Messing up might actually mean a difficult apology. One has to negotiate compromises. Relationships require work, and in Shug, they are weighed in light of cost/benefit—not in a crude way, but in an authentic fashion.
Jenny Han balances the right amounts of weight, of humor, of milestones most girls Annemarie’s age experience. She saturates the novel with just enough emotional conflict without inciting helpless depression. The characters come out of a resilient culture, a strong and determined people who rely on equal parts tenacity and mercy.
The writing is absolute loveliness. I commented on the rhythms, the pacing. Also note how Han chapters work to create a well-crafted novel without necessitating clever segues from one to the next. Each chapter is perfectly pitched. I was left sighing at the end—a well-told story. I highly recommend this to the few people left who have yet to read Jenny Han’s Shug.
*****an excerpt, the whole of Chapter 3, some chapters are lengthier, but the book is a summer afternoon.*****
Elaine once asked me why Mama calls me Shug. I said, “Have you ever read The Color Purple?” She said no, and I said, “Well there’s this character named Shug, Shug Avery…” I tried to explain, but I guess I didn’t do a very good job because she looked at me like I was crazy.
So I said, “Never mind. It’s just Shug, Shug like sugar.”
The Color Purple is one of Mama’s favorite books. Mine too. It’s all about living free, on the inside. The main character’s name is Celie (like Celia [her older sister], see) and she’s had a real beat-down kind of life. She thinks she’s nothing. The Celie meets Shug Avery, and boy is Shug Avery a force of nature. That’s what Mama calls her, anyway. Shug Avery doesn’t take crap from nothin’ and nobody. She’s a singer and a temptress, too. When Shug Avery blows through town, she shakes the whole town up. Everyone’s enchanted by her: Celie, Celie’s husband, Mr. ________; everyone. My mama, too.
That’s why she calls me Shug—well, that, and it’s short for sugar. Plenty of mamas call their babies Shug, but for Mama, I know it’s more than a sweet way of talking. She wants me to be like Shug Avery, to squeeze every last drop out of life and be special, the way she and Shug are. And to be beautiful, the way she and Shug are. I think Mama’s still waiting for that part, for me to grow up and be beautiful. I think she might be waiting for that part forever.
It’s ironic, because Celia’s already beautiful, and she was the one name for Celie, the plainest girl alive. I think maybe I should’ve been named Celie. Instead I am Annemarie, named for Mama’s sister who died when she was little. Mama says she was somethin’ special, wild and freer than anybody Mama knew. That must be pretty darn free.
I think that first Annemarie would’ve been worthy of a name like Shug. Not me, though. I’m like Miss Celie on the inside, scared of everything. But in the end, even that old scaredycat Celie finds out how to live, how to be. She shows everybody what she can do; she shows them all. I want that too.