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Sweet Mary

A Novel

About The Book

Dulce Maria “Mary” Guevara is a woman with nothing left to lose. Wrongly accused of being a cocaine queen, she has lost her job, her reputation, and—worst of all—custody of her son. Even after the charges are dropped, suspicion lingers. Desperate to get it all back, she takes what she considers the only path open to her: she goes on the hunt for the real drug queen. Unfortunately, the one person she is sure will be able to help her is the one person she wants least to see again: Joe Pratts, her ex-fiancé, a man whose connections to the drug world once ended their relationship.

Trying not to fall again for Joe is just the beginning of Mary’s challenges. The drug queen she is targeting is safely ensconced in the suburbs, hiding behind the façade of domestic tranquility. And taking her down means doing something that strikes Mary a little too close to home: she would have to leave the drug queen’s young daughter without a mother.

Sweet Mary is a gripping, heart-rending story with a noir soul and plenty of surprising twists—an assured debut from a writer with tremendous experience and talent.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Sweet Mary includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Mary Guevara is a successful real estate agent on her way to buying her dream house.  She works hard to afford a decent lifestyle for her and her beloved son Max.  Then, disaster strikes: after being mistaken for the drug queen Maria Guevara Portilla, she is taken away in handcuffs while her son and neighbors look on.  Despite being cleared of the charges, all those around her remain suspicious as tabloids scream that the evidence in her favor was “murky.”

Mary decides that she only has one way to reclaim her life: she must find Maria Guevara and bring her in. Her quest will force her to revisit her past, confront an old flame and lock horns with the scourge of the Florida underworld.  With the help of old friends and new allies she meets along the way, Sweet Mary will take Maria Guevara down.  In the process, Mary will create an entirely new life for herself and her son. 

Sweet Mary is an epic tale of a woman’s struggle to get her identity and her family back.  In the end, however, it is Mary herself who will be the most affected and come out a completely different person than she was before.  


Questions for Discussion

1. Mary claims her life is pock marked by times when she gets thrown back into the “emotional pit of my childhood in Hialeah” (p.28).  Why does she choose to try and forget her past? Does she ever really obtain the healthy level of detachment she claims to need to survive?

2. The opening page of Sweet Mary is a quote from one of the characters in the book: “People run away from who they really are --- they do it all the time” (p. 68). Discuss this quote and its relationship to the following characters: Mary Guevara, Maria Guevara Portilla, Tony and Joe Pratts.   

3. When does Mary begin her “quest for justice” (p. 91)? How does her quest change over the course of the book?

4. When we first met her mother, how was she towards Mary?  Why? What course of events cause Mary’s mother to be sympathetic towards her?  What does Mary say is the reason for this? 

5. The author chose to start many of the scenes in the book by “setting the stage,” much like in a movie script.  Why do you think she opted to do this?   What, if anything, does this contribute to the overall flow of the book?

6. Mary seeks the assistance of her old flame Joe Pratts in getting her connected with the Cardenal drug ring.  She claims Joe “had no right to draw conclusions about my life, no right to assume he knew the independent person I had become…” (p.121).  Does Mary ever let Joe see the woman she has become?  Or does she transform into an entirely different person while she is with him?

7. Mary professes that no one else “could affect me the way Joe Pratts could affect me.  That is why I had left him years ago” (p. 134).  What does Mary mean by this?  Does Joe still have an effect on her?  Why did she marry Tony and not him?

8. Discuss Mary and Maria’s confrontation.  Do you agree that Mary knew “who I used to be before you [Maria] ruined my life” (p.  187)?  When does Mary finally discover who she really is?

9. Mary experiences a number of changes in the book.  We learn about the person she was and the person she is; then we get to see the person she starts to become.  Which one did you like the most? Why?  Do you think the Mary at the end of the book is the person she is meant to be?

10. Why do you think the book is entitled Sweet Mary? Would you define Mary Guevara as “sweet”?  Were you surprised to learn that “Bad Mary” was not as bad as she was made out to be? 



Enhancing Your Book Club

1. Food plays a tremendous role in Mary’s cultural background and upbringing.  Experiment one night with some of the tasty foods from the book and bring some to share with your book club!

2.  Make your own Dulce Maria special for book club night!
You'll need:
-Mango Juice
-Fresh key limes
-Superfine granulated sugar

Squeeze three key limes into a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice.  Add four tablespoons of sugar, two shots of vodka, and a half cup of mango juice.  Shake well.  Serve in sugar-rimmed glasses.

3. Bad Mary has a craft hobby.  Have some of your members who are into crafts come and share their works with the book club. 

About The Author

Photo Credit: Dario Acosta

Liz Balmaseda (born January 17, 1959, Puerto Padre, Cuba) is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a writer for The Palm Beach Post and a former columnist for The Miami Herald.  She was awarded her first Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1993 for her writings on the plight of Haitian refugees and the Cuban-American population. She shared a second Pulitzer for breaking-news reporting in 2001, for the coverage of the federal raid to seize refugee Elián González.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (June 29, 2010)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416542971

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Raves and Reviews

"Liz Balmaseda is a gifted writer and a keen-eyed journalist, and Sweet Mary shimmers with authentic Florida heat. It's not often you find a thriller so richly textured, and so true to the culture and soul of its setting." -- Carl Hiaasen, New York Times bestselling author of Skinny Dip and Nature Girl

"Sweet Mary, Liz Balmaseda's emotional, inventive and provocative writing, engrosses you in the most satisfying of ways." -- Andy Garcia, Academy Award-nominated actor

"This book is teeming with sexy South Florida characters, but the biggest turn-on in Sweet Mary is Mary herself, a soulful, ass-kicking single mom who goes all out for the only real man in her life -- her son." -- Carlos Coto, co-executive producer of 24

"Pulitzer Prize-winning Florida journalist Balmaseda makes her fiction debut with a fast-paced tale of mistaken identity and gutsy vigilante justice...Slick, efficient and spare, this story smokes like a well-rolled cigar. " -- Kirkus Reviews

"A drug bust, law enforcement run amok, vigilante justice -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Liz Balmaseda transforms today's headlines into Sweet Mary, an exhilarating fictional debut....[Sweet Mary] will resonate with readers long after today's six o'clock news has been forgotten." -- Carlos J. Queirós, AARP SegundaJuventud

"Former Miami Herald reporter and two-time Pulitzer winner Liz Balmaseda goes from star journalist to debut novelist with her sleek ripped-from-the-headlines Sweet Mary....Sweet Mary is a wild ride, not just for Maria but for the reader." -- The Miami Herald

"[Liz Balmaseda] knocks readers in the gut with her fast-paced fictional debut." -- Associated Press

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