Agnes Green grew up on the poor side of a town outside London in the new novel “Sugar, Baby.” She’s been an outsider her whole life, with her strict conservative Christian upbringing directly at odds with her desire for romance, sex and parties.
When a wealthy model teaches Agnes to use her youth and beauty to get men to give her whatever she wants, sugaring seems like an ideal ticket out.
Debut author Celine Saintclare introduces a story brimming with possibility: a sexual awakening? feminine empowerment? Parting the curtain to expose the realities of high-end sex work? an exploration of class, race and gender divides?
What starts as a funny, sexy, astute novel that reads like butter becomes a train wreck with no consequences. “Sugar, Baby” promises societal commentary but delivers a trivial summer sex romp. Still, it’s hard not to rubberneck and watch the whole thing.
At 21, Agnes spends her days cleaning houses and her evenings trying to see her loser boyfriend. Without any aspirations, she’s an easy target for Emily Canon, a model likened to Margot Robbie and one of the cleaning company’s rich clients. Emily is convinced any young woman can take up sugaring, and decides to take Agnes under her wing as a pet project to test out her how-to guide.
Sugaring may not be her end goal, but it’s opening a lot more doors for Agnes than house cleaning did.
As she moves further away from her mother and the hometown she not-so-affectionately calls The Wasteland, Agnes finds herself orbiting closer to her true passion: photography. Suddenly she’s surrounded by artists, models and rich people with valuable connections. And through her time as a cleaner, Agnes is intimately familiar with people in a refreshingly shocking way, describing folks by their outward appearances and behaviors as well as the secrets they keep.
Despite this glimmer of hope, it’s all downhill from here. Agnes is bad at sugaring and — spoiler — doesn’t get better. She gains some money and the realization that she can be commandingly beautiful when she tries, but she has no real plans or ideas to grow from this or use her new skills. She has only the vague notion that she wants to be artistic.
It’s hard to keep rooting for her when she has so much potential but consistently disappoints — herself and me. Get it together, Agnes.
The book includes race, sexuality, sex work, religion and class, but doesn’t actually say much about any of these topics. Agnes turns out to be a passive character whose seemingly grand realizations miss the point and avoid deeper conversations.
The acknowledgments held more intrigue, and “Sugar, Baby” left me feeling betrayed, like Saintclare told the fake version of her novel. Where are the real stakes? The highs, lows, and felt emotions? Where’s the consequence, the lesson, the dynamics, depth or growth?
My mistake was going in expecting literary social commentary. But if you like a story where things just keep getting worse but none of it matters in the end because, somehow, the protagonist is fine, “Sugar, Baby” is the jackpot.
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