Thursday, 19 May 2011

Review: Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

As children, Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were both social outcasts. They were also one another's only friend. So when Cameron disappears without warning, Jennifer thinks she's lost the only person who will ever understand her. Now in high school, Jennifer has been transformed. Known as Jenna, she's popular, happy, and dating, everything "Jennifer" couldn't be---but she still can't shake the memory of her long-lost friend. When Cameron suddenly reappears, they are both confronted with memories of their shared past and the drastically different paths their lives have taken. Sweethearts is a story about the power of memory, the bond of friendship, and the quiet resilience of our childhood hearts. 

My review:
This book was different to what I expected. Both the title and the fact that there’s a heart on the cover, made me think that the Jenna and Cameron story was going to be a romance, but it’s actually an intense friendship.

Here comes the over-identifying bit of my review: I could relate to Jenna as I, too, was an outcast as a child and had to really work hard at being reasonably well-liked, as decent social skills do not come easily to me. I started going by a shortened version of my name when I was a teen, as well. I did feel a connection with the Jenna who comes across through the narration of her internal thoughts and feelings, but I wasn’t fond of the Jenna we see interact with her boyfriend and friends. I’m sure that was the point; Jenna wasn’t being her true self with them, but it bugged me that she never really gave them a chance to know the real her. She just went by the assumption that they wouldn’t accept her and I felt that was unfair and became annoyed with Jenna for it. Even though it was an understandable feeling, given her background and I was totally the same so…yeah, that was the over-identify. I think I took the annoyance I feel at myself sometimes out on Jenna.*

I think Zarr does a good job in conveying her characters as layered and complex – you get the impression that there is always more to them than what you might see on the page. Jenna’s mother’s behaviour when it comes to Cameron is questionable, but you feel that it is coming from a good place. I unreservedly loved Alan, Jenna’s step-father and I felt like Zarr avoided a stereo-type by showing a step-parent as loving and nurturing. Even a relatively minor character like Steph, Jenna’s friend, gives hints that she’s a lot deeper than she appears.

And Cameron? Classic Jordan Catalano type, all taciturn and mysterious. It was his childhood relationship with Jenna that I found touching and lovely rather than Cameron himself – I felt like I barely got to know him; he stayed so briefly and he said so little.

That last sentiment counts for the whole novel, I think. It’s a thin book, only 200 or so pages and after finishing, I feel like I only got a very small peek into the characters’ lives. Many things are left unresolved and ongoing – it’s as if Sweethearts is only one part of the story. I didn’t close the book feeling as if I really understood Cameron or Jenna’s relationship with him, (or with her mother, or with her friends) but then, she doesn’t, either. The picture on the front cover is fitting – it’s a sweet thing, this book, but you really only get one bite.

Rating: 3.5 stars

*On a similar theme, I am now wondering if I have food issues, like Jenna. The history of me thinking I have the exact same problem/ailment as a character in a book goes back as far as The Babysitters’ Club, when 11-year old me was sure I had Stacey’s diabetes (I felt thirsty all the time. According to Stacey, that was a valid symptom). I unfortunately haven’t grown out of this and a few years ago, after reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Asperger’s Syndrome gone undiagnosed in me for more than 25 years seemed completely plausible. So, reading Sweethearts, whenever Jenna described her bingeing, I was salivating when I’m pretty sure I was supposed to be concerned. But taking a bag of Milky Bars and a tub of ice-cream, shutting herself in her room and devouring the food in one go didn’t sound worrying to me, it sounded gooooo-ud. Is that wrong?

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