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Flawed people and a forceful look at an area ravaged by an economic downturn and a rising opioid epidemic meld in the character-driven “Sugar Run,” Mesha Maren’s novel debut.

At 35, Jodi McCarty is getting her first taste of freedom when she’s released from prison after being convicted at 17 for shooting her girlfriend, Paula Dulett. Before Paula, the only person who had been kind to Jodi was her grandmother, Effie. The aimless cross-country trek, including a dip into Mexico with Paula, was the closest to happiness Jodi had known, savoring the “delicious, unfamiliar risk” of each day. The couple supported themselves with petty crimes and Paula’s skills as a poker player. Paula’s intoxicating talks about how a good poker hand is a “sweet sugar run” has Jodi remembering her West Virginia home, and how she wants to return to the landscape of “flashing mountain creeks that appear out of nowhere after a good rain.”

The relationship with Paula — and its violent end — preys on Jodi’s mind as she begins her new life, hoping she can fulfill her dream of settling on land once owned by her grandmother. Then Jodi meets and falls for Miranda Matheson Golden, who is separated from her husband, a country music star “of receding fame.” Along with Miranda’s three sons, the new couple heads for West Virginia where Jodi remembers “even the air around her had felt right.” Along the way, Jodi hopes to find Paula’s brother, Ricky, who was abused as a child.

“Sugar Run” gains its strength from Maren’s uncompromising storytelling and her insistence on showing even the most painful realities.

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