Stories about queer people can sometimes feel incomplete, even shallow. Even in 2017, it seems like a lot of stories focus on the sex, probably because that’s what straight people are likely to get hung up on when it comes to queer relationships. It’s foreign and novel, and just a bit naughty. But because of that, a lot of other queer works steer so far away from that that it seems like there’s no sex at all. They’re so sanitary and saccharine as the creators attempt to avoid the fetishization of queer bodies. Of course no relationships — queer or otherwise — are just one or the other, and honest representations are a healthy mix of all of the things that make relationships what they are.
Sugar Town is one such story. Hazel Newlevant’s autobiographical novel of polyamorous queer love has everything from the blushing flirtation of two people who find each other attractive to the raunchy spanking and sexplay of lovers who know and trust each other. In between, there are discussions of jealousy, depression and sex work in the context and politics of polyamorous relationships. The story is depicted in an Alison Bechdel-esque cartoon style, with popping candy colors that really help the book live up to its name.
Hazel, who lives in New York, is visiting her parents for the winter holidays in her hometown of Portland. Her boyfriend, Gregor, is home in the city, and she’s pretty sure she loves him, but she’s not sure they’ve been together long enough for her to tell him that. Add in the newness of their poly relationship, and Hazel’s jealousy and insecurity issues get in the way of her feeling open to being honest. While Gregor has a lady friend visiting as Hazel’s away, Hazel is out looking for company of her own. At a queer dance, she meets Argent, a pretty woman with lavender hair, tattoos, and a septum piercing. When they begin to talk, Argent tells her almost immediately that Hazel is her dominatrix name, so it seems to be fate that they’re meeting. After a night of drinks and dancing, the girls part ways with plans to meet again for a proper date.
Newlevant writes about the particulars of her less-than-traditional relationships with surprising candor, with none of the discomfort or secrecy that often comes with queer stories. Her sexuality is treated as if it’s nothing to blink at in any scene, and being poly is treated with the same ease by the characters she meets, even if she feels less comfortable with it. It’s a refreshing look at queerness, where queerness isn’t obsessed with itself and doesn’t necessarily define the characters.
In fact, the great drama, if it can be called that, lays more directly in Hazel’s poly relationship with Gregor and the ways she’s starting to explore the nature of that relationship. It’s unclear if Hazel and Gregor are both pretty new to the concept (Hazel at one point asks Argent if there’s a difference between being in a poly relationship and being in an open relationship, which I think many poly people would say there is) or if Hazel is the only inexperienced one. She does carry some guilt that she’s having so much fun with Argent while Gregor is back at home, and she feels it’s equally unfair for her to be jealous that Gregor has another partner visiting while she’s away. She seems to equate telling Gregor she loves him with a kind of possessiveness that she believes is undeserved; she says she thinks it’s too soon, but it reads as if she hasn’t yet figured out the contract of their relationship, whether they’re allowed to be serious about each other without being monogamous. It’s an interesting question, and it feels very sincere.
Argent functions interestingly in light of all this. In a lot of stories about queer women (with the film Carol immediately coming to mind as an example), there’s usually an experienced queer woman introducing a less worldly woman to the scene, so to speak. Argent works similarly, but because Hazel seems to be a comfortably queer woman, someone sure enough of herself to go to a party alone and get to know someone she’s attracted to, Argent works more as someone who helps Hazel get comfortable with herself as a poly woman. Argent is also poly, and mentions a long-distance girlfriend who lives in San Francisco, and doesn’t even blink an eye at the idea of Hazel having a boyfriend too or even at her dancing with another woman at a party they went to together.
The major conflict of the story comes from Hazel slowly becoming comfortable with who she is and how she wants her relationships to be. But that’s a gradual process, and her time getting to know Argent helps her to get there. This is the book’s major weakness. Newlevant wants to dwell on the sweet moments between Hazel and Argent, the little things that Hazel comes to love about Argent: that she wants to compete on a reality cooking show, that her car is old enough to only have a tape deck, that she has a little dog named Lily. As a strip or a series of one-page comics, that would probably work really well, but as a book, it falls a little flat.
Newlevant seeks to remedy this with little conflicts: accidentally outing Argent as a sex worker to the clerk in her local convenience store, finding out Argent has felt suicidal in the past, not being able to locate a working tape deck to make Argent an actual mixtape for her to listen to when Hazel goes home. But aside from the mixtape problem, which lasts for several pages, these issues resolve themselves in a matter of panels, and they feel undeveloped as a result. Newlevant either had too much space to work with in this book or not enough— she either felt the main story wasn’t quite enough on its own or wanted to included all these little nuances of their relationship but couldn’t flesh them out as much as she might have liked. Put simply, there’s too much going on.
Oddly, Gregor seems like an afterthought through much of the book. While he appears in phone conversations and video calls, he also feels less like a person that Hazel is in love with than Argent does. Almost four whole pages come between mentions of him, and the last time we see him, Hazel is being secretive about Argent, which comes across as the opposite of what we’re supposed to be taking from the book— that poly relationships should be open, honest, and forthright, that there should never be a reason for jealousy or secrecy. It’s an odd choice when Argent and Hazel have spent so much time treating each other as confidantes.
The coloring in the book also doesn’t do Gregor any favors. Portland is like a candy store, with cotton candy pinks and mint greens everywhere. It certainly fits the name of the book (which is never referenced in text, by the way). But New York, which only appears when Gregor appears, is a winter scene, even though it is obviously December in both cities, with colors cooler and more muted. Newlevant could have just been been noting a difference in the tones of the two cities she has called home (and she even comments once that she’s not sure which one is home for her) but this leads to a perhaps unfortunate association of her drabber, more normal life in New York, a life that includes Gregor. It’s interesting to paint New York this way, as it is certainly a city no less queer than Portland.
Ultimately though, Sugar Town is a frank, sweet look at a pair of queer girls getting to know each other. They make mistakes, they figure things out, and they figure out what they want to be together. It feels very satisfying as a story of two people who are right for and honest with each other. But that rightness also leaves a lack of conflict that makes the story feel incomplete, as if a chapter is missing, and the book’s themes suffer from that. Its lack of focus is the one major flaw in a story otherwise as sweet and pleasant as its name.
You can currently purchase Sugar Town directly through Hazel Newlevant’s site.