Sweethearts, Sara Zarr's second young adult novel after last year's National Book Award finalist Story of a Girl, is about a girl who has a difficult childhood, reinvents herself to become popular and accepted in high school, and then has her past catch up with her. In elementary school, Jennifer Harris was one of the poor kids, the only daughter of an overworked single mother. She was a social outcast, quiet and overweight. She had only one friend, a boy named Cameron Quick. Her friendship with Cameron was intense and mutually dependent, right up until the day that Cameron disappeared. Years later, in a new school, and with a more stable home life, Jennifer has become the svelte and popular Jenna Vaughn. However, she remains very conscious of, and ashamed of, her hidden past.
Written in spare prose, this book explores truths about friendship, loyalty, and self. Several passages about how Jenna is going through the motions, pretending to be what people want, will, I think, resonate with teens. For example:
"By lunch, the work of being the birthday version of Jenna Vaughn started to wear on me. I'd been smiling all morning at the Happy Birthdays and the hugs and compliments while Jennifer Harris dogged me. I kept looking over my shoulder for I don't know what..." (Chapter 2)
"It was a nice scene -- me and my boyfriend studying on a Saturday night. Except that I wasn't really there. Narration ran through my head: There is Jenna Vaughn kissing her boyfriend, there is Jenna Vaughn with her trig book open, there is Jenna Vaughn smiling and playing footsie and acting like she is exactly where she wants to be." (Chapter 12)
I wonder if everyone feels like that sometimes? Sara Zarr clearly understands what it's like to be an outsider, even when that's not how it appears on the surface. She also demonstrates her keen understanding of why someone would take comfort in overeating, and how a person can keep friends, and even a boyfriend, at a distance.
The characterization in this book is top-notch. I especially liked the positive portrayal of Alan, Jenna's stepfather:
"Now, I got up and followed Alan into the kitchen, staying close to the wake of calmness that always surrounded him. He's like a walking security blanket -- quiet voice, softly curling gray hair, unassertive wire-rim glasses. I'm sure his general aura of safety had a lot, or everything, to do with by my mom accepted his proposal after only three dates. (Chapter 3)
There's also a mystery in Sweethearts, about something that happened to Jennifer and Cameron when they were young. The truth is doled out in teaspoonfuls throughout the course of the book, and the suspense will definitely keep readers turning the pages.
Sweethearts features fully rounded characters, an absorbing plot, and taut writing that gets right to the heart of things. It's probably more a book for girls than for boys, however. There's a pink-frosted, heart-shaped cookie on the cover, and I think that Cameron is a character who girls will admire more than boys do. But for fans of realistic, girl-friendly young adult fiction, and especially for teens who enjoyed Story of a Girl, Sweethearts is a must-read title.
Publisher: Little, Brown Young Readers
Publication Date: February 1, 2008 (available now)
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher, from NCTE
Other Blog Reviews: The Well-Read Child, Kate's Book Blog, Charlotte's Library, Booktopia, Bildungsroman
Author Interviews: Mr. Media Interviews, Class of 2k7, Bildungsroman
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.