The downside of a book about a delicious pastry is that it made me want to eat pastry! Nancy Mauro is a dangerous temptress with The Sugar Thief. Set primarily in Mauro’s and my hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario, this novel is a mystery wrapped in the warmth of family and iced with the frosting of betrayal and recrimination. It asks us what happens when people go to any lengths to establish the life for themselves that they think they deserve.
Sabine is a YouTuber renowned for her baking channel, and she is about to get a Netflix show. She returns to her hometown of Thunder Bay to visit her family—but what should have been a celebration of her father’s achievements in life turn into mourning his sudden death. He bequeaths to Sabine the secret recipe of the Persian. Sabine wants no part of her father’s small-town bakery, but when she pulls on one thread of her family history, the entire tapestry of her past starts to unravel. Soon she discovers that she has to keep going, keep digging, to find out who she is, where the Persian actually came from, and what her father has been hiding her entire life.
The Persian is a real thing. It was a ubiquitous part of my childhood, growing up here in Thunder Bay: schools would have “Persian days” where we would bring in a loonie (or eventually, a toonie—that’s a two-dollar coin) for the sweet treat. To be honest, I’ve never enjoyed Persians all that much—too sweet—and their uniqueness seems overhyped. But I like how Mauro, whose family here in Thunder Bay produces the Persian, seized on this as an idea for a novel. I really love it when authors return to their roots, so to speak, in such an authentic and grounded way.
Indeed, that’s what this novel is all about. Sabine’s reluctant return to Thunder Bay triggers a cascade of emotions. Her father was emotionally distant for her entire life, and now he’s gone. She arrived in Canada at four years old, uncertain, and he never did make her feel all that welcome or wanted. So Sabine wrestles with the stories that other family members tell her about her father.
Mauro employs some interesting narrative structures. The chapters mostly alternate between the perspective of Sabine or Wanda, her producer. Here and there we get chapters set in Italy or in Thunder Bay’s past that follow people like Sabine’s uncle. Although the narration itself is third person limited, there’s still some unreliable narration at work. Sabine and Wanda, despite being peers, have aims that are sometimes at cross-purposes. (Interestingly, we don’t get much in the way of perspective from Paul, the camera operator.) The flashback chapters are meant to be what happened based on the version of events told to Sabine by someone else, such as her aunt or uncle. So who’s to say what really happened?
Sabine is a textbook unlikeable protagonist. Wanda starts off as much more sympathetic although I suspect that by the end most readers will not like her either. These two women actually have a lot in common: both belong to immigrant families (Sabine herself is technically an immigrant as well). Both have parents who came to this country in relative poverty, though Sabine’s family has become fairly successful whereas Wanda’s is still struggling a great deal—commentary both on the differences in opportunity in Thunder Bay versus Toronto as well as the differences in discrimination of Italian immigrants versus Filipino ones.
Sabine and Wanda are both very motivated by money. Wanda is supporting her parents—and money just seems to slip through their fingers. Sabine is chasing a big Netflix deal for a few reasons; she has a secret that she doesn’t want getting out, and she also has an expensive lifestyle in an expensive city. Throughout the story, money talks.
Mauro keeps the pacing tight and keeps you guessing about where the book is going next. My main criticism is simply that the ending wraps things up a little too neatly and too quickly. There are a couple of twists that feel very trite. But the second half of the book does not live up to the anticipation stoked by the first half.
There’s also a certain element of style and satire at work here that might be off-putting for some readers. It’s most obvious when dealing with Colette, Sabine’s agent, or with the producers from Netflix. They’re caricatures, slightly buffoonish in their one-dimensional portrayal. I’m largely convinced this is done on purpose, hence the way I’ve labelled it as satire. Despite being a mystery, The Sugar Thief actually has a lot more in common with a comedy, almost a farce even. It’s less hard-boiled, more deep fried.
So as long as you’re clear on what to expect, I think there is a lot of potential for enjoyment in this book. I, of course, have a soft spot for it because of its setting. But it’s precisely because of such vulnerability that I’m relieved to report it’s actually good! Just don’t expect it to be more than it is. And next time you’re in Thunder Bay, try a Persian. They aren’t amazing, but they’re ours.