A Bittersweet Read

The Ottawa XPress – December 9, 2004

Emily Pohl-Weary’s A Girl Like Sugar (McGilligan Books, 232 pages, $22.95)

Emily Pohl-Weary’s “A Girl Like Sugar”

Empathizing with the Apathetic

– “You’re one weird dude, Sugar.”
– “Weird is way better than cute or sweet.”

Young People’s Press touts Toronto’s Emily Pohl-Weary as “an unconventional and modern-day hero to many young female writers.” She is the editor of the anthology, Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, and co-founder and editor of the art and lit magazine, Kiss Machine: A Conga Line of Culture. You may also recognize her name from Broken Pencil magazine, where she was a former editor.

She’s been on tour this month promoting her first published novel, A Girl Like Sugar. Its sleeve describes the novel as a sexy and spirited coming-of-age tale of a girl named Sugar who struggles for the lead role in her own life after the drug overdose of her rock star boyfriend. Problem is, the age in “coming-of-age” never comes.

The shoe-gazing indie chick, Sugar, tries to get on with life by working retail at Record Teen. She befriends a scenester Korean skater and moves in with a dominatrix and a DJ roommate. She converses and fucks the ghost of her dead superstar partner, Marco (full marks for expert detailing of a young woman’s masturbatory experience). Eventually, she starts making films and this helps her get over the dead dude and bond with the new one (the skater).

Through all her troubles, the narrator makes the observation that “growing up is all about dealing with complicated situations and becoming a little less fragile each time.” But the meaning is lost on readers who endure her consistent Avril Lavigne tough-ass attitude of “whatevers” throughout the book, making it impossible to see vulnerability through the apathy or any sign of evolution or growth. The disconnect is present even in the closing line of the book: “The day Marco died, Sugar didn’t exactly bawl her eyes out.”

But Sugar is apathetic, so what’s the point here? The lack of sophisticated plot structure leaves gaps and there is no moral about growth and recovery. I won’t sugar-coat it: Sugar may be Ms. Cool but she’s an annoying character.

“I’m just continually surprised when people have a strong response to Sugar,” Pohl-Weary told XPress. “After spending days and days in my apartment, writing this novel, it’s almost inconceivable that others – people I don’t know personally – will invest in the story enough to be swept up by it.”

Pohl-Weary explained that she set out to make a so-called “apathetic” young woman into a three-dimensional character. “There aren’t too many female characters like Sugar available in literary works,” she said. So kudos to McGilligan books for supporting engineers of the cultural creative.

Contemporary author, Michael Turner, compares the book to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its “deadpan prose that draws on a messy bedroom of cultural references.” For those who don’t mind pop-culture overload, the book is an opportunity to expand cultural horizons. If you want a window into the lifestyle of movie buffs, vegans, zinesters and anarchists from downtown Toronto, then A Girl Like Sugar is the book for you. Otherwise you may just get irritated.

– Sylvie Hill