As someone who prefers a physical book to an e-book and an e-book to an audiobook, I don’t know what possessed me to request an audiobook other than novelty. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed it, which, I suspect, has more to do with an engaging romance and lovely writing than audio narration.
Piper Huguley’s Sweet Tea is about a successful, single-minded young woman who has lost touch with her roots and heritage; now that she’s “made it” professionally and financially, she is ripe to discover how hollow success can be when not accompanied with a sense of belonging, meaningful work, familial connection, and a loving life-partner. Much as I enjoyed the romance, I enjoyed the heroine’s rediscovery of her roots, tradition, and heritage even more. Also, the food, pretty fan-yum-tas-tic! The blurb offers some further detail:
Althea Dailey has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. So why doesn’t she feel more excited about it? She’s about to become the only woman—and the only Black person—to make partner at her prestigious law firm in New York City. When she has to travel South for a case, she pays a long-overdue visit back home to Milford, Georgia. To her surprise, a white man she’s never met has befriended her grandmother.
Jack Darwent wasn’t interested in the definition of success dictated by his father and Southern high society. His passion for cooking led him to his current project: a documentary and cookbook about authentic Southern food. Althea’s grandmother is famous for her cooking at the historically Black Milford College, especially the annual May feast meal. But Althea suspects Jack of trying to steal her grandmother’s recipes.
Although Althea and Jack don’t have the best first impressions of one another, they discover they have more in common than they’d guessed… and even as they learn about one another’s pasts, they both see glimmers of a better future.
The hero, Jack Derwent, serves more as a foil to Althea, though he has his own story to tell. He meets Althea at a point in his life where he knows who he is, what he wants, and who he wants. It’s Althea for Jack from the moment he meets her. When the novel opens, Althea is given her first case as partner, an intellectual property dispute between a company making “sweet tea” and a claim that a small-time cook and restaurant-owner is copying their trademark product. This brings Althea home to the South and reunites her with her grandmother, who calls her “T”, a lovely play on the tile and nicely ironic, given how “un-sweet” Althea proves to be to Jack, at least initially. What starts as a business trip turns into something more emotionally challenging as Althea reunites with the grandmother she’s not seen in ages and encounters a suspicious thorn in her side, Jack, who has struck a great friendship with her grandmother. Althea’s grandmother is essential to Jack’s documentary attempting to preserve a tradition of Southern cooking and the women whose un-“codified” recipes would be lost otherwise. Althea suspects Jack of exploiting her grandmother and sticks around to protect her interests. Jack, charming, gentle, and funny, spends most of the first third of the novel wondering what bee has entered Althea’s bonnet and how to fend off her verbal blows. What really gets her? Her grandmother LOVES this guy. It makes for humorous scenes and great banter.
Althea brings the stress and suspicion of the big-city and cut-throat world of corporate lawyering to her hometown. One of the novel’s aspects I enjoyed most was Althea’s shedding of her appearance’s “layers”. In NY, she lightens her skin, plans a nose job, manicures and pedicures, wears muted colours, and straightens her hair. As Althea’s journey compels her to come to terms with her parents’ loss and her abandonment of home, she also lets go of those corset-like strictures on her appearance. It’s a lovely juxtaposition between inner and outer change and Huguley navigates it with humour and compassion. Though Jack’s journey is the lesser, he too contends with his mother’s loss, his love for the Black lady who brought him and his sister up subsequently, and his father’s disapproval about his professional choices.
Huguley employs her characters’ relationship with food to say something about their perception of heritage. As a documentarian and trained chef, Jack is present to observe, record, and most importantly, preserve a heritage he obviously respects and appreciates. As a great cook himself, his relationship with Althea’s grandmother is one of sharing and learning from a master. Althea, on the other hand, arrives in her hometown avoiding all “fried food” and sweets and there’s a marvellous scene when she eats an near-entire grape pie, one of her grandmother’s signature recipes. As she moves away from her citified ways, we also come to understand the pressure Althea was under, as a Black woman, trying to have a high-powered career. Althea is who she is and does what she does out of necessity, not mere whimsy. As Althea’s dietary strictures are shed, her wardrobe changes as she opts for colourful dresses and, thank goodness because this stressed me out, comfortable shoes. Althea is comfortable “in her skin” because she embraces it as a richness of heritage, not an obstacle to be overcome. Again, outer changes signify inner understanding and confidence. Thematically wonderful on Huguley’s part.
Another of the novel’s strengths is Huguley’s secondary characters, especially Althea’s funny, sharp, smart grandmother; childhood friend, Monique, is a hoot. From the Uber driver who shares the South with Althea to Jack’s sister Bethany, secondary characters are vibrant and engaging. Underlying the characters’ lives is also a strong faith. While the characters may possess gradations of faith, with Althea coming across as the least faith-based, once Althea is in the South, her grandmother’s church is a hub of community, comfort, and continuity.
I don’t know that I will be devouring audiobooks the way I do physical and e- ones, but I did enjoy listening to Sweet Tea. At a little over seven hours, it was easier to follow the narrative thread. I enjoyed Inger Tudor’s narration, for the most part. She was strong on the female voices: Althea; her secretary; friend Monique; and especially grandmother was terrific. She was weaker, I thought, on Jack, when she dropped her voice’s timbre to simulate Jack’s maleness. It always sounded like he was whispering. I think Tudor was aiming for a Southern drawl, but it didn’t quite convince. With Miss Austen’s help, I would say Piper Huguley’s Sweet Tea, whether you listen to the audiobook, or read it with your eyeballs, offers “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Piper Huguley’s Sweet Tea is published by Hallmark Publishing. It releases today, August 10th, and may be found at your preferred audiobook vendor. I received the audiobook from Hallmark Publishing, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.