REVIEW: ‘Sugar Summer’ is an Excellent Dirty Dancing Retelling

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Sugar Summer Cover

Sugar Summer, a self-published young adult novel by Hannah Moskowitz is a lesbian retelling of Dirty Dancing (1987) that takes all of the ground-breaking progressiveness of the film and excellently captures its essence in a modern story. Sugar Applebaum is on a much-dreaded vacation with her sister Bekah and her mother at the Jewish Sideling Springs vacation center in the mountains of West Virginia the summer before she is set to begin college at Brown.

The basic plot follows Dirty Dancing more or less beat for beat from Sugar discovering the secret after-hours lives of the staff, volunteering to fill in for Tristan, one of the dancers, when he can’t perform in an important show with his partner Mara, and the resort owner’s grandson being an absolute prick who thinks he can push everybody around. Sugar Summer is all of what Dirty Dancing is and so much more though.

Sugar Summer is all at once a book about race, class, gender, sexuality, love, and relationships. In only 139 pages, the book balances all of these components without ever glossing one over or abandoning a thread once it begins. From the very beginning the race and class tensions amongst the staff of Sideling Springs. The three branches of the Sideling Springs staff are explicitly segregated.

The waitstaff is all rich, ivy league, “Nice Jewish Boys” hired specifically to appeal to Jewish grandmas and their granddaughters. On the other hand, the groundskeepers and entertainers are strictly forbidden from mingling with guests on account of their lower class and perceived lack of value as potential mates. That is, except for when their Latinx or gay identity can be exploited as fetishes for the patrons to feel transgressive or exotic.

As Sugar and Mara spend virtually all of their time together teaching Sugar to dance so she can fill in for Tristen, their conversations do an excellent job of exploring the intersectionality of their identities, their privileges, and the assumptions they make about each other and themselves. For example, to pass off as Tristen while keeping her replacing him a secret, Sugar has to don a suit and tie and pretend to be a man. This leads to more really well-written conversations between Sugar, Tristen, Mara, and even Bekah and Sugar’s mother about gender identity, performance and how it intersects with sexuality. Sugar’s many conversations with Tristen, who is trans, about the differences between being a man and acting like a man might feel honest and real. They are also balanced astutely by smaller interactions that elicit queries over whether traditional labels even mean anything anymore when people’s identities are free to be so fluid and ever-changing now.

Of course, for as deep, intense, and personal as these topics are, the book is by no means a trite or serious affair. It’s a great and lighthearted romance between two well-written characters in Sugar and Mara. It’s also a story about being a best friend, a sister, and a daughter. I read the entire book in a single sitting as I laughed and awwed throughout. Even though the story takes place over only three weeks, the pacing of everything is perfect. The inexplicable magic of a summer romance and good writing combine so that all of the interweaving plotlines and character journies fit plausibly and snug into the story.

Unfortunately, Sugar Summer does have a significant amount of typos throughout the book. It by no means detracts from the reading experience overall, but the occasional swapping of pronouns in reference to who was speaking did have me rereading a few paragraphs to catch my bearings.

Dirty Dancing is my favorite movie, so I came into Sugar Summer with high expectations that were all exceeded. The book not only captures the fun and the romantic and sexual energy of the film; it elevates all of the social commentary and progressiveness that made Dirty Dancing special. The answers Sugar Summer gives to the race, class, gender, and sexuality questions of today are well-conceived, well-written, and delivered in a fun package that makes me wish I could watch this version of the movie now.

Sugar Summer is available now digitally through Amazon.

Sugar Summer
4.5

TL;DR

Dirty Dancing is my favorite movie, so I came into Sugar Summer with high expectations that were all exceeded. The book not only captures the fun and the romantic and sexual energy of the film; it elevates all of the social commentary and progressiveness that made Dirty Dancing special. The answers Sugar Summer gives to the race, class, gender, and sexuality questions of today are well-conceived, well-written, and delivered in a fun package that makes me wish I could watch this version of the movie now.