Sugar Pie Guy
Are you tired of the same old historical settings? Then how about 1970s Cleveland? Can you fall in love with a mustachioed hero named Randy Manucci who likes to do the hustle? Want to read about a savvy black businesswoman and community representative heroine who looks superfly in silver Lurex? Then give it up for the charming, groovy Sugar Pie Guy.
Roberta – Bobbie – Bell hears that Colony Square, the shopping plaza where her aunt owns a salon, may be sold to make way for the new-style enclosed concrete malls of the 1970s. The property is owned by Manhattan-based developers Manucci and Sons, of which Randy Manucci is a son. When he visits Colony Square, he’s immediately smitten with Bobbie. Meanwhile, a one-off disco hosted to raise money for Bobbie’s aunt turns into a regular event, with Bobbie as a hostess and then investor.
This is just such a kind, gentle book. Bobbie runs a deliberately calm disco, not even serving alcohol, where the locals come out of love of dancing and community. Bobbie discovers herself as a businesswoman; Randy finds a woman he likes so much he can’t help flying from New York to Cleveland just to spend an hour at her aunt’s birthday disco. Racism has affected the characters in the story – Bobbie’s aunt recalls her loyalty to Randy’s father because most landlords wouldn’t rent retail space to a single black woman. But 1977 Colonial Heights and Bobbie’s disco are portrayed as places aware of but apart from the racism and homophobia of the time. “It’s sort of a cross between a bohemian district and Mayberry, isn’t it?” muses Bobbie. “We’ve got black and white and straight and gay and punk rockers and disco dancers and hippies, and people seem to at least try to get along and work together. Where else are you going to get that around Cleveland? Maybe Coventry Village.”
What a great illustration of the tone of the story, and also the author’s meticulous knowledge of Cleveland. I have a Clevelander friend in her seventies, and I had to keep calling her to share details like that from the story that sent her down memory lane. Randy mentions department stores Higbee’s, Halle’s, and Hotchkiss. She lit up – “Oh, Higbee’s and Halle’s are real – I have a picture of me on Santa’s lap at Higbee’s in 1952! Hotchkiss must be the one that’s going to be in the plot.” And it was. I loved that the author went to the next level of detail, not just the expected shag carpeting but also Bobbie’s aunt’s “baby blue Trimline phone.” The book centers disco music, but the playlists show that the author knew or studied the era rather than just used a Top Songs of 1976 Google result. And the descriptions of the outfits are groovy, baby.
The story did lack some intensity and momentum for me. Given that one of the owners didn’t want to sell, I never doubted that they’d find a way to save the Square. There isn’t much tension in the relationship, either, since the Square and geography are the only obstacles in the way of the romance. Randy is a bit flat as a hero – he doesn’t have many character traits beyond thinking Bobbie is awesome and flying around being rich. I nearly giggled when he started speaking Italian during sex, because that’s just random for a third-generation Italian-American. The male supporting cast blurred because again, not too much to differentiate them (there’s a DJ and a donut shop owner and I think a third guy, and two of them are a couple and one of them is named Sal or maybe Val but I can’t remember which ones). On the other hand, Bobbie’s friend Kelly and Mrs. Hotchkiss, the elderly Jewish department store owner, are very nice, and Allison of the local news channel is a love-to-hate villain.
Sugar Pie Guy features a delightful epilogue, and those are words I rarely write together. I actually found myself saying “Aw,” and beaming at the characters’ long-term happy endings.
On the whole, this is a sweet and warm book that won’t feel like anything else you’re reading. Definitely give it a disco-ball spin.