By chapter two, Alessa, the main character in D.D. Kaye’s Ugly Girl, Sweet Nectar, has already made a cringe-worthy mistake — for all the right reasons, perhaps, but a mistake just the same — and readers will be holding a collective breath and silently screaming advice at her.
However, more information is soon offered up, making our girl an unavoidably sympathetic character. She’s the caretaker for her difficult mother, who is suffering from the nasty and unpredictable symptoms of alcohol dementia. She’s been a single mom to three daughters, two of whom (teenagers!) still live at home, and she has been reclusive, lonely and destructively self-deprecating for way too long. She’s tired and sad and trying her best, and she decides that it’s time to put herself out there, take some risks, and try to build a better life for herself.
In this novel, Kaye has created an unusual format for telling Alessa’s story by switching back and forth between the grown-up Alessa’s efforts to improve her life and the journal entries she’s writing in an attempt to heal some deep and difficult wounds, furiously recalling a chaotic and disastrous childhood. The back story is heartbreaking and explains a lot of Alessa’s stumbling and feelings of self-hate. That she even survives is laudable, and readers may be surprised that Alessa hasn’t completely lost her sense of humor. Maybe that’s what has saved her.
DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY PRESENTS ENDURING CHALLENGES
Her journal entries introduce readers to her family: Her parents, two people completely unsuited for each other, were also unsuited for parenthood. Her mother is a dangerously free spirit with a weakness for booze and abusive lovers.* She abandoned Alessa and her little sister Lilla, leaving their father, a needy, meek and cowering soul, to carry on as best he could. The addition of a bossy and selfish new wife doesn’t help.
Kaye successfully juxtaposes the two stories — Alessa’s childhood and Alessa’s adult life — in bright, engaging prose, making grown-up Alessa’s struggles understandable, almost expected; and her remarkable devotion to the mother who wounded her not only admirable but incredible.
Sometimes the child Alessa seems better suited for this world than the adult Alessa who is trying so hard to reinvent herself. As a girl, she faced the appalling situations she found herself in with surprising maturity, committed to day-to-day survival and taking care of her sister. As an adult, however, she makes some of the same mistakes she saw her parents make, as though without her sister to protect, she is free to do so. “You’ve got to break that trend,” a stranger, an astrologer, tells her. “Know what I mean?”
IMMERSIVE FICTION BASED ON A TRUE STORY
The universe seems to be sending advice, but she is loath to listen, having closed up her heart years ago. “The Universe is against me,” she laments, but she also hears her childhood self whisper, “The wind is changing. I can feel it in my hair and the depths of my soul.”
The cover of this book says that it is based on a true story and a disclaimer declares that it is not a memoir, but whatever liberties Kaye takes in telling this story don’t matter at all when it comes to the intensity, empathy, sorrow and intimacy readers will feel while immersed in its pages.
When Alessa cries out at the end of the book that her journey isn’t over, readers will want to take the journey with her. She is ready to move forward. Like many of us, she hasn’t fully conquered her demons, but at least she knows where they are.
Watch the Ugly Girl, Sweet Nectar book trailer here!
*Mature Content Warning: Ugly Girl, Sweet Nectar is intended for adult readers and includes some violence, light swearing and some sexual situations.
Dr. Lowe Prescribes Laughs and Life Lessons in “The Backseat Shrink”
8 Books Featuring People Coming to Terms With an Abusive Childhood