Josey Cirrini is sure of three things: winter is her favorite season, she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle, and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night. . . . Until she finds her closet harboring Della Lee Baker, a local waitress who is one part nemesis—and two parts fairy godmother. With Della Lee’s tough love, Josey’s narrow existence quickly expands. She even bonds with Chloe Finley, a young woman who is hounded by books that inexplicably appear when she needs them—and who has a close connection to Josey’s longtime crush. Soon Josey is living in a world where the color red has startling powers, and passion can make eggs fry in their cartons. And that’s just for starters.
Brimming with warmth, wit, and a sprinkling of magic, here is a spellbinding tale of friendship, love—and the enchanting possibilities of every new day.
Praise for The Sugar Queen
“Like the most decadently addictive bonbons, once started, Allen’s magically entrancing novel is impossible to put down.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Bewitching . . . Such a pleasurable book.”—Publishers Weekly
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About the Author
Hometown:Asheville, North Carolina
Place of Birth:Asheville, North Carolina
Education:B.A. in Literature, 1994
Read an Excerpt
When Josey woke up and saw the feathery frost on her windowpane, she smiled. Finally, it was cold enough to wear long coats and tights. It was cold enough for scarves and shirts worn in layers, like camouflage. It was cold enough for her lucky red cardigan, which she swore had a power of its own. She loved this time of year. Summer was tedious with the light dresses she pretended to be comfortable in while secretly sure she looked like a loaf of white bread wearing a belt. The cold was such a relief.
She went to the window. A fine sheen of sugary frost covered everything in sight, and white smoke rose from chimneys in the valley below the resort town. Excited, she opened the window, but the sash stuck midway and she had to pound it the rest of the way with the palm of her hand. It finally opened to a rush of sharp early November air that would have the town in a flurry of activity, anticipating the tourists the colder weather always brought to the high mountains of North Carolina.
She stuck her head out and took a deep breath. If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
Just before she ducked her head back inside, she looked down and noticed something strange.
There was a ladder propped against the house, directly underneath her window.
She leaned back in quickly and closed her window. She paused, then she locked it.
She turned and walked to her closet, distracted now. She hadn't heard anything strange last night. The tree trimmers from yesterday must have left the ladder. Yes. That had to be it. They'd probably propped it against the house and then completely forgotten about it.
She opened her closet door and reached up to pull the string that turned on the light.
Then she screamed and backed away, stopping only when she hit her desk and her lamp crashed to the floor.
"Oh for God's sake," the woman sitting on the floor of her closet said, "don't have a cow."
"Josey?" She heard her mother's voice in the hall, then the thud of her cane as she came closer.
"Please don't tell her I'm here," the woman in the closet said, with a strange sort of desperation. Despite the cold outside, she was wearing a cropped white shirt and tight dark blue jeans that sat low, revealing a tattoo of a broken heart on her hip. Her hair was bleached white-blond with about an inch of silver-sprinkled dark roots showing. Her mascara had run and there were black streaks on her cheeks. She looked drip-dried, like she'd been walking in the rain, though there hadn't been rain for days. She smelled like cigarette smoke and river water.
Josey turned her head as her bedroom door began to open. Then, in a small act that changed everything, Josey reached over and pushed the closet door closed as her mother entered the room.
"Josey? What was that noise? Are you all right?" Margaret asked. She'd been a beautiful woman in her day, delicate and trim, blue-eyed and fair-haired. There was a certain power beautiful mothers held over their less beautiful daughters. Even at seventy-four, with a limp from a hip replacement, Margaret could still enter a room and fill it like perfume. Josey could never do that. The closest she ever came was the attention she used to receive when she pitched legendary fits in public when she was young. But that was making people look at her for all the wrong reasons.
"My lamp," Josey said. "It attacked me out of nowhere."
"Oh, well," Margaret said distantly, "leave it for the maid to clean. Hurry up and get dressed. My doctor's appointment is at nine."
Margaret closed the bedroom door. Josey waited until the clump of her cane faded away before she rushed to the closet door and opened it again.
Most locals knew who Della Lee was. She waitressed at a greasy spoon called Eat and Run, which was tucked far enough outside the town limits that the ski-crowd tourists didn't see it. She haunted bars at night. She was probably in her late thirties, maybe ten years older than Josey, and she was rough and flashy and did whatever she wanted—no reasonable explanation required.
"Della Lee Baker, what are you doing in my closet?"
"You shouldn't leave your window unlocked. Who knows who could get in?" Della Lee said, single-handedly debunking the long-held belief that if you dotted your windowsills and door thresholds with peppermint oil, no unwanted visitors would ever appear. For years Josey's mother had instructed every maid in their employ to anoint the house's casings with peppermint to keep the undesirables away. Their house now smelled like the winter holidays all year round.
Josey took a step back and pointed. "Get out."
"You most certainly can."
"I need a place to hide."
"I see. And of course this was the first place you thought of."
"Who would look for me here?"
Rough women had rough ways. Was Della Lee trying to tell her that she was in danger? "Okay, I'll bite. Who's looking for you, Della Lee?"
"Maybe no one. Maybe they haven't discovered I'm missing yet." Then, to Josey's surprise, Della Lee reached over to the false wall at the back of the narrow closet and slid it open. "And speaking of discoveries, look what I found."
Revealed now was the large secret space behind the closet. There were stacks of paperback romances, magazines and catalogs on the floor, but most of the secret closet was occupied by shelves piled with food—packaged snacks, rows of sweets, towers of colas.
Josey's entire body suddenly burned with panic. She was supposed to be happy. And most of the time she supposed she was, in an awkward, sleepy kind of way. She'd never be the beauty her mother was, or have the personality of her late father. She was pale and plain and just this side of plump, and she accepted that. But food was a comfort. It filled in the hollow spaces. And it felt good to hide it, because then she could enjoy it alone without worrying about what others thought, or about letting her mother down.
"I need to figure some things out first," Della Lee said, sliding the door back in place, her point made. She was letting Josey know that she knew her secret. Don't reveal mine and I won't reveal yours. "Then I'll be moving up north."
"You can't stay here. I'll give you some money. You can stay in a motel." Josey started to turn, to get her wallet, to get Della Lee away from her food. But then she stopped. "Wait. You're leaving Bald Slope?"
"Like you don't dream of leaving this stupid town," Della Lee said, leaning back on her hands.
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm a Cirrini."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't those travel magazines in your secret closet?"
Josey bristled. She pointed again. "Get out."
"It looks like I got here just in time. This is not the closet of a happy woman, Josey."
"At least I'm not hiding in it."
"I bet you do sometimes."
"That's it. I'm calling the police."
Della Lee laughed. She actually sat there and laughed at Josey. Her front teeth were a little crooked, but it looked good on her, offbeat and sassy. She was the kind of woman who could get away with anything because she had no boundaries. "And what will you say? There's a woman in your closet, come get her out? They might find your stash."
Josey thought about calling Della Lee's bluff. It would serve her right. It might even be worth everyone knowing about the food in her closet. But then her heart began to beat harder. Who was she kidding? It was embarrassing enough being such a sorry excuse for a Southern belle. Her weight, her unfortunate hair, her secret dreams of leaving her mother who needed her, of leaving and never looking back. Respectable daughters took care of their mothers. Respectable daughters did not hide enormous amounts of candy in their closets.
"So you stay, you don't tell anyone, is that it?"
"Sure," Della Lee said easily.
"Add it to my list of sins."
"I don't think there's room left on that list," Josey said as she took a dress from its hanger. Then she closed the closet door on Della Lee.
She went to the bathroom down the hall to dress and to pull her very curly, licorice-black hair back into a low ponytail. When she walked back to her bedroom, she stared at her closet door for a moment. It looked completely innocuous. The door and its casing were painted an antique white set against the pale blue of the room. The corner blocks at the top of the casing were hand-carved in a circular bull's-eye pattern. The doorknob was white porcelain, shaped like a mushroom cap.
She took a deep breath and walked to it. Maybe she'd imagined the whole thing.
She opened the door.
"You should wear makeup," Della Lee said.
Josey reached up and grabbed her lucky red cardigan off the high shelf, then closed the door. She put the sweater on and closed her eyes. Go away, go away, go away.
She opened the door again.
"No, really. Mascara. Lip gloss. Something."
Reading Group Guide
After the publication of her New York Times bestselling debut, Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen returns with the captivating tale of a powerful family in small-town North Carolina, where a lifetime of secrecy is about to unravel–and a sweet dream is about to come true. At twenty-seven years old, Josey Cirrini spends her days caring for her widowed, embittered mother. Except for a secret crush on the mailman, Josey has little excitement in her life, consoling herself with a closet full of hidden desserts and paperback romance novels. But Della Lee Baker is about to change all that, with revelations about Josey’s legendary father as well as her mother, who was a stunning belle in her younger days. Once Della Lee has worked her tough-talking magic, the Cirrini women will be forever transformed.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of Sarah Addison Allen’s The Sugar Queen. We hope they will enrich your experience of this enchanting novel.
1. What keeps Josey from leaving home? What makes Adam stay in Bald Slope? In what ways do they feel the same about North Carolina and its landscape?
2. What has Josey hungered for throughout her life? What transformed her from a difficult child into a woman who hides her cravings?
3. Why does Margaret want to prevent the arrival of unexpected visitors? What fears are captured in her peppermint-oil ritual?
4. What are Julian’s motivations in his pursuit of Chloe? How did your opinion of him shift throughout the novel?
5. In her conversation with Livia’s granddaughter (chapter six), Josey suggests that Amelia might want to have a life of her own. Amelia immediately dismisses that idea. What enables Josey to free herself, rather than becoming like Amelia? Could Josey have done it without Della Lee?
6. How does money influence Josey’s outlook on life? How did her father use it, through lavish parties and an eye-catching house, to get what he wanted? What was he not able to buy, no matter how wealthy he was?
7. Josey lives in a world of rules, from a neighborhood that bans snowmen to a mother who bans a snug red sweater. What is the purpose of these rules? What stifling rules in your life–at work, with your family, or in your community–do you sometimes dream of breaking?
8. Discuss Chloe’s relationship to the world of books. What is the significance of the magical way they appear in her life, and the equally magical way she finds a house to call her own? How do books become a home for her?
9. What is Nova Berry’s role in Bald Slope? How do her remedies–such as stinging nettle tea–compare to Josey’s sweets?
10. How did Margaret’s past shape her future? Who ultimately is to blame for standing in the way of her love for Rawley? How have notions of love and motherhood changed for Josey’s generation?
11. How did you react when Della Lee’s situation was revealed in the end? Have you ever been guided by the wisdom of someone like her?
12. Would you have forgiven Jake? How did you feel about him after you learned the identity of his lover?
13. How are Adam and Josey able to heal each other as their attraction grows? What does it take to propel Josey’s crush beyond the realm of fantasy? When are they able to trust each other enough to have a real-world relationship?
14. What were your thoughts as Josey tore up the attorney’s note aboard the ship? What do you believe it said? Are secrets ever useful in a family, or do they always result in pain?
15. What themes appear in both this novel and Sarah Addison Allen’s debut, Garden Spells? What forms of mystical hope appear in both books?