Five years ago, I read and loved Wayne Hoffman’s first novel, Hard. So, I was naturally excited to learn that he had a new novel out, Sweet Like Sugar. It’s a really interesting novel, one that made me think. I really enjoyed it.

Sweet Like Sugar centers on Benji Steiner, a gay advertising executive who has started his own small company in the same shopping center as a rabbi’s Jewish bookstore. Benji is Jewish but has lost touch with his faith. He still practices a handful of Jewish observances, but in general he doesn’t really connect to his Jewishness any longer.

When his former Hebrew school teacher, who now works in the rabbi’s bookstore, brings the aged and ill rabbi, Jacob Zuckerman, to rest in Benji’s office, it sets of a series of events that transforms both men’s lives.

Like many gay people who were raised in religious households, Benji’s coming out coincided with his rejection of his religious heritage. As conservative religious figures teach against same-sex desire, those of us who experience those desires as a real and immutable part of our lived experience question the value of religion more broadly as we reject the specific teachings we find homophobic.

My own experience was very much like this. My parents are very religious, and I was raised to share their conservative views. Once I began to accept my sexual desires rather than fear them, it called into question everything they had tried to teach me–if they’re wrong about homosexuality, are they wrong about everything else too? I think it’s a natural progression from one issue to the next (to the next and so on) that ultimately led me to reject the whole kit and caboodle.

Essentially, Sweet Like Sugar is about Benji’s struggle to decide whether there is something of value in his Jewish heritage, something that can be reconciled with his life as a gay man and that therefore speaks to the truth of his experience. He sees that Rabbi Zuckerman, whose wife has died, needs help to survive his grief, which is literally killing him. By driving him to and from work, Benji gets to know him, and the two become friends of a sort. They even begin studying the Torah together.  Their closeness, however, is challenged when each discovers essential truths about the other.

One of the things I like about this novel is that these discoveries avoid cliché. Sweet Like Sugar earns its major plot twists and turns by grounding that plot in believable characters. We understand where each man is coming from and how he reacts to the other’s revelations. The novel takes its time developing their relationship, and we see that adequate time has passed for them to get to know one another. I also really like Hoffman’s ultimate take on religion. The novel isn’t preachy but it also isn’t disrespectful (at least from a progressive point of view) of religion. I found Benji’s ultimately decision concerning religion to be very satisfying.

All in all, Sweet Like Sugar is a fun, likable novel that was a pleasure to read. It’s a completely different novel than Hard, which I have just started rereading, far less sexual (I tend to like sex in my gay novels) or historically focused (also a general favorite with me), but I like what this one is doing. I definitely recommend it.

Advertisements