Review: Sweet Tea – Piper Huguley
by Piper Huguley
Publisher: Hallmark Publishing
Publication Date: July 13, 2021
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Southern traditions, family recipes, history, and hope come together in author Piper Huguley’s heartfelt romance from Hallmark Publishing.
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.
Content notes: View Spoiler »Panic attack, colorism, micro-aggressions, misogyny, death of parents in a car accident (before the book starts), discussion of slavery « Hide Spoiler
This book is exactly as sweet as the title suggests! It’s an interracial romance between an intellectual property lawyer and the filmmaker who’s trying to preserve old southern recipes. It does lean heavily on the “big city person returns to her small town roots” Hallmark premise, so be warned if that’s not your thing.
After a tragic accident upended her life as a young teen, Althea left Milford and her remaining family behind her. Years of boarding school, college and hard work later, she’s just made partner at her NYC law firm and is finally ready to set her sights on the next item on her check list… whatever that may be. When she hears some aspiring film maker is cozying up to her grandma, she decides to take advantage of another case bringing her back to the south to roll in like an avenging angel – but Jack isn’t what she expected. And to his surprise, Tea – her childhood nickname – isn’t at all what Miss Ada described her granddaughter as, either. She’s prickly, antagonistic and convinced he’s out to swindle her grandmother. But there’s something about Tea that Jack can’t get out of his mind. And maybe, with a little reminder of her family’s roots, Tea can find what she’s been looking for all along.
“I’ve got to keep an eye on him.” Allie looked over Monique’s shoulder instead of into her eyes.
“Yes. He might swindle my grandmother. Why is no one concerned about that?”
Monique folded her own arms. “He might.” Her face was a mask of everything serious, but then she broke out into a radiant smile. “But what a way to go!”
Althea – Allie as she prefers to be called now – is a complicated character. Her entire life has revolved around making partner, with the result that her only friend in NYC is her executive assistant Connie. She cares deeply about her grandmother, but consoles herself by paying people to keep tabs on her rather than going back to Milford herself. But when she hears about Jack, wow. As an intellectual property lawyer, she knows how people can be screwed out of things – she’s handling one of those cases in fact, as she’s slowly coming to realize – and she’s prickly and disinclined to trust Jack, especially when she sees how much everyone in the community, including her “Granda,” seems to like him. Jack’s poor little handsome rich boy background raised my eyebrows at first, but it only took a few chapters from his perspective to realize that while he may be a bit spoiled, he’s got a good heart. He’s not sure he could say the same about Tea – at one point he muses she’s more like Iced Tea towards him – but he still sets out to reassure her that his intentions aren’t as nefarious as she fears. And while on the surface Jack and Althea are quite different, they both rejected following in their families’ footsteps. For Tea, that would’ve been staying in Milford, attending and then helping out with the college her ancestors founded. For Jack, that would’ve been following in his civil rights lawyer father’s footsteps. But Jack, trust fund and all, figured out something important quickly – he didn’t want to be a lawyer, he wanted to cook and share his love of food. Tea’s not sure she even knows that, but she takes Jack’s lesson to heart. That it’s one that her grandma has been trying to teach her as well… well, I’m sure it helped that it was coming from a handsome guy!
I don’t feel very qualified to talk about this, but there’s quite a bit of colorism ingrained in Tea’s thoughts. She wears foundation several shades too light, and after someone recognizes her because of her nose (apparently all Smithsons have the same nose) she resolves to finally get a nose job and have it narrowed. She’s removed all traces of her southern accent from her speech. It feels like she’s trying to distance herself as far as possible from her roots – reject all traces of her family, especially her dead parents – and it’s heartbreaking to read. But all of this comes to a head with her first case as partner. All of the other partners at her law firm are old white guys (she’s dubbed them the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which absolutely killed me), and when her first case is representing a case about sweet tea between a white woman’s restaurant chain and the Black owner of a rundown restaurant, well… you can see where this is going.
“We got her strength. We’ve got her resilience and love. All we need is to know our purpose, Tea.”
There is so much delicious food in this book. Muscadine pie, cinnamon rolls, Coca Cola ham, biscuits… I could just go on about all the different biscuits for hours. Miss Ada is famous for running a year-end fundraiser meal for Milford College, which is how Jack originally hears about her. She’s an amazing cook and does it with so much love, nearly as much love as she has for the town of Milford and its history. I loved the bits and pieces about their ancestors and how alive they still felt to Miss Ada and the other Milford residents. Milford was practically a character in its own right! As for other side characters, I loved Sherry, the aforementioned sweet tea cook, and Tea’s NYC friend Connie (I want to know what happened with her baby!). But the character who really stole the show was Miss Ada. It was evident on every page how much she loved Tea and how much she regretted whatever forced her to leave Milford. Her quiet belief that she would come back eventually was heartwarming. Which brings me to another point…
“You’re with others who understand your pain and you’re all there for the same reason. To have God, and the knowledge that there will be a better day ahead to heal you.”
There is a decidedly Christian flavor to the book, bordering on inspie. From prayers before meals to attending the historic AME church, religion’s an important part of Milford and an integral piece of Miss Ada’s life. Not so much for Tea, who ran out after her parents’ funeral service and has basically ignored religion – much like she’s ignored Milford – ever since. There’s a reason Tea’s compared to the prodigal son! The tone isn’t particularly evangelical, but it’s pervasive, and I’m not sure how a firmly secular reader would react to it. It does lead to some extremely touching moments, though. Tea’s first time back at church (accompanied by an emotional speech from her grandmother) leads to a revelation for her, and suddenly the text switches from referring to her as “Allie” to calling her “Tea.” It was a very poignant moment and well-written, and Tea’s coming back to the church is as much of her coming back to Milford as anything else. Much as you’d expect from the religious content, there’s no sexual content besides handholding and sweet kisses.
Overall, this was sweet and heartwarming, and if this isn’t made into a Hallmark movie pronto, I will be highly disappointed. I’ve already added the author’s Milford historical to my TBR and look forward to reading more about the Smithsons!