Understand Me, Sugar by Jane V. Blunschi: Reviewed by Cameron MacKenzie


“The cause of all suffering,” Jane Blunschi reminds us, “is desire.” In Blunchi’s new short story collection Understand Me, Sugar, this Buddhist tenet is visited upon the protagonist of “To Yoke,” a former lawyer and aspiring yoga instructor named Sheila. Through the course of that story, Sheila progressively dismantles her old life in pursuit of an ill-defined future, quitting her job as a lawyer to become a yoga instructor. The fall-out from that decision—what’s learned and what’s not—offers up a sketch of insecurities and drives emblematic of Blunschi’s collection.

In Blunschi’s careful, at times frustrating, but ultimately fascinating collection, we are presented with a series of women—liberal, self-satisfied, well-off—who are nevertheless nagged by a persistent sense of hopelessness. The good job, the nice car, the caring parent or partner never seems to be quite enough. As a result, Blunschi’s protagonists repeatedly implode their relationships, abandon their jobs, betray and cast aside their loved ones all in the name of something unspecified, in some ways unspeakable; something more true and real than their comfortable, superficial lives. Of the two key paradoxes addressed by this book, the first one is the most relatable, that is: the manner in which these women seek meaning serves to destroy those things that would most provide it. As delivered by Blunschi, that paradox is heartbreaking, exasperating, and all too familiar. Perhaps even a touch too familiar—and that leads to the second paradox, but more on that in a minute.

In “The Goods,” Carrie, desperate to have a child with her partner Kim, becomes increasingly preoccupied by Kim’s friend Amy, a confident if insufferable acquaintance who gave birth to her own children through IVF. As Carrie and Kim begin to consider and ultimately choose IVF for their own pregnancy, Carrie finds herself inexplicably drawn back to the insistent and intolerant Amy, ultimately lying to her own partner Kim in an effort to use Amy’s sperm donor as their own. “Am I wrong for hijacking Amy’s sperm,” the narrator asks herself. “Kim doesn’t need to know exactly where the baby came from, she’s going to love it no matter what.  I’m not ashamed, and one day, I’ll own it outright.”

In “Snapdragon,” Elise’s inability to emotionally connect with her partner Jody is manifested in her infatuation with the predatory hairstylist Kevin: “So she’s the boy and you're the girl,” he asks Elise, ruffling her bangs and buying her another drink she didn’t ask for. In the aforementioned “Yoke,” this formula is taken a step further as it details Sheila’s fascination, and ultimate disillusionment, with her yoga instructor Marina, a disillusionment that is only possible after Sheila becomes an instructor herself—becomes, in other words, the thing she most desires, only to find that desire as empty as all the rest.

The characterizations of these women are spot-on, their voices real, their hypocrisies teasingly revealed with light doses of self-serving justification. “I made the decision,” Carrie tells us as she orders that vial of sperm for IVF, “and I’m the one who’s going to make the deal.” As frustrating as Carrie’s narcissism is here, more frustrating is the light hand with which it’s portrayed. As occurs too often in the collection, neither the protagonist, nor the text itself, seems willing to dig any deeper into the hypocrisy that drives them. Yes Carrie is obsessed with Amy, but why? Yes, Elise will betray her partner for a sexual predator, but why? These stories do not end well, and yet from the perspective of the protagonists, everything is going according to plan. As Sheila mediates on her experiences after abandoning her yoga studio and returning to her previously hated job, she “grudgingly admitted to herself that she had cultivated some gratitude for the parts in her life that hadn’t completely fallen apart.” It’s a gratitude short-lived, of course, since only a few sentences later she’s pulling on a pair of old running shoes, taking a spin on the track, thinking “I could do this every day.” We recognize this pattern of delusion as true and honest—we see it in our friends, our family, ourselves—but the deeper causes of it seem to remain as much a mystery to the text as to the characters themselves.

However, as Understand Me, Sugar unfolds, an interesting process of accumulation begins to reveal a deeper message. As the tale of blithely ignorant self-destruction is told over and over, what begins to emerge is a fascinating critique of the poisonous discourse of self-actualization enacted over the half-made psyches of these ‘modern’ women. There is a sickness at the root of these stories, one that comes to the forefront principally with the intrusion of men into the narrative. The repugnant figure of the governor in “Edwin Edwards and the Lady From Dallas” cuts through that otherwise meditative tale about Jenny, a young adopted girl confronting her birth mother.  Vaguely disappointed that her birth father is an average middle-aged man, Jenny recalls a moment from childhood when she became convinced the philandering governor she saw on television must be her true father. Jenny remembers thinking that the tan, smiling, well-coiffed man on the TV was fascinating, magnetic, even though she was “too little to know the meaning of words like corruption, fraud or infidelity.” Elise’s sexual encounter with the charismatic hairstylist Kevin in “Snapdragon” is short, sickening and exquisitely written, and her inexplicable desire to return to him helps to chip away at the facade in which these stories otherwise linger for a touch too long. In “Gulnar Means Rose,”  by far the least coherent of the stories in the collection, the book begins to approach something like a constitutive trauma.

In that story Kelly, a confident, abrasive esthetician, gradually falls under the spell of a quack “guru” astrologist, called (not named) Bingo. The set-up is mannered, patient, imminently believable. After watching an interview with Bingo on Oprah, (he’s patched in live from Maui—fantastic) Kelly wikipedias him, chuckles a little, and then thinks she might try just a little of this meditation thing. Maybe that would help. With something. As the story unfolds, Kelly slowly untangles herself from her life—so easy when you have so little you really care about—and begins to emotionally invest herself in this man whom she’s never met. As each step of her behavior, each evolving thought, becomes more exaggerated and incredible, the narrative obligingly stops trying to make sense of it all. By the time the shaman physically enters the story, the verisimilitude of the fiction has ruptured completely, the last page dissolving into a dialogue between woman and man, a dialogue that centers on submission and sacrifice to the will of the man. “Beyond the desire,” Bingo tells her—that is, beyond a petty, superficial, perpetually unsatisfactory life—“is protection, and service. Will you manifest life beyond?” The story effectively ends on that question, with Kelly held fast by Bingo on his knee, “exactly the way she dreamed he would.”

The courage of this story to plunge into its emotional center and effectively sacrifice its structure to touch on the engine that drives it, serves in fact to structure the book entire, giving voice if not to the fear that underlies the willful blindness of the collection’s other protagonists, then to at least one face of that fear. I look forward to Blunschi taking her vision even further.

Cameron MacKenzie's work has appeared in Able Muse, The Rumpus, SubStance and The Michigan Quarterly Review, among other journals.  His essays have been collected in The Waste Land at 90: A Retrospective and Edward P. Jones: New Essays.  His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career is forthcoming from Madhat Press.  He teaches English at Ferrum College.