Book review: Jennifer Hallock’s “Under the Sugar Sun”

Several weeks ago, American author Jennifer Hallock came here to the Philippines to deliver a talk on how she does her research for the Philippine-set historical romances that she writes. It was a great and informative talk, with lots of *ahem* visual aids.

I have to confess that when I attended the talk, I was only barely a quarter into reading Under the Sugar Sun, the first book to be published in the Sugar Sun series. I got all the incentive to finish the book after that talk, though!

Under the Sugar Sun tells the story of American schoolteacher Georgina “Georgie” Potter, who journeys to the Philippines to find news about her brother, Ben. Ben was one of the soldiers caught up in the Balanginga Massacre, and Georgie is desperate to find him.

Her search is complicated by sugar baron Javier Altarejos. While Don Javier has problems of his own to deal with, he’s hopelessly drawn to the flame-haired American maestra.

As she draws closer and closer to finding her brother, Georgie also finds herself inexorably pulled towards the orbit of Don Javier.  When the time comes for her to make a decision that will fundamentally change her life, will she be able to make the right one?

Under the Sugar Sun came to me with a lot of praise from a number of the ladies from #romanceclass, so I kind of went into it with expectations. A lot of times, that leads to expectations not being met, but happily that wasn’t the case for Under the Sugar Sun.

I was immediately drawn into the novel’s world when I started reading it, and even more so after I attended the talk. It’s pretty obvious that Hallock put a lot of care and research into constructing Manila during the early 1900s. It’s embarrassing, but there were moments in the book where it felt like Hallock knew more about the history of my country than I did.

Javier is also another great addition to the growing number of Filipino leading men that the authors of #romanceclass have slowly been populating the internet with.  Yes, I know that shoring up fragile masculinity shouldn’t be the job of romance writers,  but it makes me feel good that these ladies are showing that Asian hotness isn’t the sole province of East Asian men.

The book also succeeds in creating stakes that truly feel threatening to the two leads’ romance. Especially throughout the latter part of the book, I had a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach that the happy ending would come at too heavy a price, and I’m glad that Hallock held back and gave Georgie and Javier a satisfactory ending.

One thing that did hang heavy on me. As I got closer and closer to the end, no matter how happy their ending was going to look, I kept thinking that history isn’t on the side of Javier and Georgina. Which led me down the path of how easier it is to imagine a happy ending for the heroines in Regency romances (yes, I know not the same eras), since the coming years wouldn’t hit them as hard as they would hit the Philippines. Just the thought of the Philippine experience of World War II really put a damper on the ending for me.

That said, it’s history, It’s not like there’s anything that can be done to change it now. It hasn’t dampened my interest in continuing reading the series and see where this is going to go. I’d especially like to see how World War II gets handled in this universe.

If you’re looking to scratch a historical romance itch and want to learn more about our country as well, definitely put Under the Sugar Sun on your list.

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