I was made aware of this book’s existence by Mina V. Esguerra, who featured the book in her blog post about books that she wished existed. I hadn’t even finished her blog post before racing to Amazon to buy Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock. Historical romance set in the early 20th century…in the Philippines? A handsome sugar baron as leading man? Oh God, yes. Two pages in and I was utterly hooked. I sensed the voice of a confident writer and spied the shorelines of a diligently-researched world. I finished it this weekend, hungry for more.
The book is a historical romance set in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Georgina Potter, a young woman from Boston, is summoned by her American fiance to the small town of Bais in Visayas to work as a teacher. Secretly, she has another mission: to find her brother, last seen fighting in troubled Samar. Both of these pursuits are promptly derailed by her encounter(s) with Javier Altarejos, a handsome and opinionated sugar baron with secrets of his own. Javier, in turn, is trying to keep his struggling hacienda and sugar plantation afloat. The last thing he needs is a distraction–especially one in the form of a headstrong American woman. Their secrets eventually collide, as they must, with devastating consequences.
Under the Sugar Sun Impressions
This isn’t a book review so much as it is a summary of my general thoughts and opinions–a stance I’ve adopted from Mina, and which she shares in her own post. I want to do my part in helping to share books I’ve enjoyed, rather than analyze the book’s merits as a literary work. However, my feelings meter has been glitchy for years, so this might be less about the squee-factor and more about how it just works for me. (Super technical, I know).
I really enjoyed the book primarily because of its setting. I know very little about this time and place in Philippine history. With a steady hand, Hallock successfully immerses the reader into this busy, fractured, cultural melting pot of a world. The measured pace of the book might read as sluggish to some, but to me it felt like the perfect speed with which to establish all the characters and how they fit into this world. Every detail served a narrative purpose–at no point did the explanations feel like showmanship.
On Facebook, Hallock describes the process of (loosely) modeling Javier after a Regency romance hero. Her post made me realize how appropriate the Regency model seemed when applied to turn-of-the-century Philippines (quite a grand statement, considering I know little about either subject!). Georgina, Javier, and the other characters fit within an ordered hierarchy, one defined by race and class and wealth and family. Interactions between characters are established not by forthright dialogue, but by a skillful dance around the topic at hand (sound familiar, fellow Pinoys?). Some of these dances are more delicate and graceful than others: witness the many scenes of careful bartering (of small and not-small things) versus Georgie’s and Javier’s verbal sparring. Misunderstandings are rife; wit is generously deployed.
Georgina and Javier read like characters of their time who are simultaneously ahead of their time. The book is told through their alternating POVs. I was slightly more entertained by Javier’s story, only because barely holding on to this side of propriety = sexy. I love that he served a purpose that was bigger than the romance, and that we were able to see his struggles in a way the other characters couldn’t. However, I really enjoyed following Georgie’s growth through the book, and to see her stubbornness either rewarded or reproached. She’s a plucky young heroine whose pluckiness is not always a good thing–while some might say this makes her unlikable at times, I think this makes her nuanced and complex.
Anyway! Every scene in which they interact is a delight to read, which is a really prude way of saying: holy hell, the sexual tension between them. No doubt the release–once it comes, pardon the pun–is worth the wait *fans self*. I also loved the nod to Catholic guilt after one memorable scene, perhaps because I can relate too well.
Things do get a tiny bit frustrating around two-thirds of the way into the book, when one of the character’s missions takes over and sends Georgie and Javier into chaos. It’s there that the story loses some of its levity, and I start yelling at characters–one in particular–who make really crappy choices. Which is fine, though I tend to like it more when characters who do crappy things go through a redemption phase of similar value. The book ends on a happy note, of course, but to me there wasn’t enough of a “redemption arc” for this character for me to be 100% pleased with the outcome.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m still like 95% pleased. I so love the world and characters Hallock created–especially Padre Andres, Allegra and the schoolgirls. She just got it so right — the tone, the style, the attention to detail, the culturally-specific undercurrents, the wit. Oh yeah, and the romance (I’m just so enamored by everything else, really, but yes the romance was good). I trusted her completely with the story from the very first page, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.