“Sugar and Salt” by Susan Wiggs is a touching and important read. The novel is rather provocative and significant as it deals effectively with many vital women’s issues. What is a tad perplexing is that the book is billed as a romance, but actually the romance plays second fiddle to the more important issues regarding misogyny and race that Wiggs quite effectively raises. The cover image also seems to not reflect the actual novel; in the story, Wiggs cleverly reverses the stereotype of male barbecue cook and female baker. The person who would be making the pink-iced, flowered, decorative cake on the cover is not main character Margot Salton; she’s actually the pitmaster who learned barbecue in Texas and opened her restaurant in San Francisco next to a bakery. The baker is her romantic foil, Jerome Sugar, which seems an entirely appropriate name for someone who makes sweet bakery goods all day.
While the title and pink-hued cover emphasize that we are going to be reading a romance, actually this novel is much more than “merely” a romance. It is about Jerome and Margot and their budding relationship, but it’s also about Margot’s past and how she ended up in San Francisco after growing up in Texas. When Wiggs finally shares Margot’s backstory, which she does gradually over the course of the novel, we realize what a leap Margot has made from her humble and tragic roots. Throughout the story, Margot alludes to her horrible past. In the prologue, we realize that something is going to happen when Margot wins a prestigious restaurant award, but the details remain a mystery until the gradual reveal.
The real story of Margot’s traumatic past is a perfect example of the way in which fiction may impart hard truths. Wiggs graphically shows readers the horrors of what happens to women who stand up to abusers. Think about those recent famous cases of “stand your ground.” All those who stood their ground are men. When women stand their ground, as Wiggs so clearly demonstrates in this novel, they are all too often accused of murder and jailed. Not convinced? Simply Google “women and stand your ground.” And Wiggs helpfully provides more information about this miscarriage of justice in the Author’s Note at the end.
To a lesser extent, Wiggs shares lessons about the all-too-evident common thoughtlessness of those with white privilege. When Margot gifts Jerome’s two sons with hoodies from her restaurant, they at first decline the gift. They explain, regretfully, that they don’t wear hoodies. They share that they also keep their hands out of their pockets in stores, and that they never run while outside in public. Margot is horrified that she didn’t think of that when she brought them hoodies, but how many readers would also neglect to think about that? When one thinks of the often-deadly combination of “stand your ground” and “hoodie,” what comes immediately to mind is the Florida 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The results of a study on stand your ground laws and the percentage of white on black deaths found to be justifiable versus black on white deaths found to be unjustifiable is horrifying — sadly, but not surprisingly. Women, also, are determined to be less “justified” when killing a man even when the killing is clearly a result of self-defense.
And Wiggs points out all these societal ills very admirably. There is romance, to be sure. And we really like the main characters and all the additional characters comprise important plot elements. But the central story is certainly about Margot, and her growth, her strength, and her determination to succeed in spite of impediments that would surely cause people with less backbone to give up and live a lesser life. This is a romance that leaves the reader with many questions about social justice and equal rights. We leave with questions about a legal system that is clearly unbalanced against those who are society’s have-nots. And we see, perhaps more clearly than we would wish to, how the “haves” all too often escape consequences for their horrific actions.
The result? An extraordinarily thoughtful novel with nice references to yummy food and even some delicious-sounding recipes at the back. And some romance. And much philosophical and political significance.