Friday, March 15, 2013

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

     "This version of our lives, her version, was important to her.  I knew that.  It was the story she always told her friends, the one she had probably told Alan when they were dating.  I'd heard and overheard it a million times myself: (...)
     And it was a true enough version in some ways.  Nothing about it was patently false.  It just wasn't the whole story.  I felt Alan watching me, "Jenna?" he prompted.  "You look like you want to say something." 
     I glanced at him, could hardly look at my mom.  "Something did happen.  To me.  And Cameron.  Something kind of horrible." 
    She looked stricken and said nothing, like she was afraid to ask what it was.  So I kept talking."  Page 169

I don't understand the anything about marketing and publishing.  The story descriptions on the back of a book and in the interior flaps are always to be ignored.  Book covers are perhaps even more difficult for me to understand.  I can only assume that the people in these positions are doing their jobs very well or else the trends that persist wouldn't still be around.  I'm all for 'Don't judge a book by it's cover' but if I hadn't previously read Sara Zarr and loved everyone word I would have avoided Sweethearts.  You have to ignore the cover.  (It's not that the cover is bad, only very misleading.)  Then ignore the title.  (The title and cover combo try to ensure that no one other than a very specific market will approach this book, and I should think that audience would feel misled.)  Finally, don't read anything on the back.  So what you want, is to read this book electronically--text only--or a corrected, unbound proof.  Just don't make the mistake of not reading it. 

Cameron Quick and Jennifer Harris went through elementary school hell together.  She was fat and told she was ugly, raised by her mother who made no time for her at all, and Cameron was raised by two people that never should have had kids for a host of awful reasons.  They were teased--badly--outcast, and became friends.  They were each others only friends, family and people who showed each other any kind of care or affection.  The previously mentioned "horrible" thing happens and binds them together at the age of nine in a very compelling way.  Soon after this traumatic event Cameron completely falls out of Jennifer's life. 

Fast forward from age nine to seventeen and Jennifer Harris has transformed herself into Jenna Vaughn: new school, new body, new self confidence, friends, boyfriend; a whole new identity.  All of these concepts would have been foreign to Jennifer Harris.  It is Cameron's reappearance, after Jenna's long standing belief that he was dead, that makes her struggle with her identity and question the validity of Jenna Vaughn. 

Contrary to popular belief, not all young adult fiction is about 'coming of age.'  That seems to be what Catcher in the Rye has predisposed the world to think but it's not always the case.  Jenna has come of age rather nicely (whatever that means) but when Cameron comes back she has an honest, full-blown, identity or midlife crisis at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Jennifer Harris was a kleptomaniac, a victim of neglect on so many levels, and forcibly made to be self sufficient at a very early age.  Jenna is having to reconcile her present with Jennifer's past; sift through the good and bad, find what works and what doesn't without falling prey to too many destructive habits.

Sweethearts deal with Jenna's problems interacting with other people and, of course, how she explains her life to herself.  Her mother, who was virtually never there in Jenna's younger life as she worked to put her self through nursing school and try for something better, doesn't know of this terrible thing that happened to Jenna and Cameron.  She was never around long enough for Jenna to tell her.  It's the kinda of thing that no parent would want to happen to their child, yet they'd absolutely want to know if it did.  Jenna's mother was not only not ever there for her growing up, but she also lied to Jenna about Cameron's disappearance at the time it happened.  She did so knowingly and in full understanding of what Cameron meant to Jenna as a child.  Cameron's appearance adds a heavy dose of stress to their relationship that was previously never present. 

Jenna's relationship with Ethan, her boyfriend, is stereotypical of a high school romance: aggressively shallow, vapid, and routine.  While Ethan is definitely in line with the behavior of his age and position and most of his interest in Jenna start with his genitals, I do wish Jenna kicked him to the curb way earlier than she did.  She knew her treatment of Ethan wasn't fair to either of them and it only led to further, damaging bad decisions on her part.   Her internal confusion, and Ethan's presence led to a somewhat disturbing birth of what felt like Jenna's sexual dependency and need to be with someone as a way of finding solace in all the conflict that suddenly came up.  Jenna and Ethan had some really blurry sex with some very weighty undertones that never developed.

With her friends, Ethan included, Jenna occupies a space between 'Yes-Man' and high school ideal.  She has everything she could want and slowly starts to acknowledge that her life is fake.  She has been giving into whatever will support her status; whatever will keep her far away from Jennifer Harris.  Cameron comes back and she starts stealing again, eating disturbing amounts of ice cream and candy, and questioning the relationships with the people she had previously called her friends. 

Not surprisingly, her relationship is most complex with Cameron.  Cameron is more of a figurehead that represents Jenna's past.  He's not a solid, tangible, developed or substantial character.  He isn't given much time in the book, and what little we get is infuriating and led me to believe that he was an asshat.  He is all the friction in Jenna's life within herself, her mother, and her past.  Cameron and Jennifer are the ultimate platonic relationship that isn't stable or meant to last.  Jenna's mother said Cameron represents 'unfinished business' and I liked that expression except I never felt she would move on or live a fulfilling life in any capacity.  She starts stealing again with no remorse and binge eating with only vain thoughts as to her looks; never once thinking why she's stealing or eating mountains of cake.  She certainly had sex with Ethan for all the wrong reasons, and never thought to ask herself why she was doing it.  We see Jenna explore many possible outlets to relieve her stress but she never actually dealt with the problem.  Simply getting over the psychological abuse she went through as a child isn't really an option, what she went through would undoubtedly stick and change a person, but she seemed really well adjusted--all things considered--before Cameron came back, and lying to one's self to be happy isn't exactly rare these days.  I'm really not sure what all I wanted from Cameron's character but he was a bit too abstract to really impact the story.    

You should know by now that I complain the most about the books I love best.  In having read Once was Lost, I've seen Zarr go further and develop topics more than was done in Sweethearts.   

Jenna seemed a bit too close to her stepfather, Alan, not in a way that felt creepy or false but he was easily her BFF and that was never developed and considering her past with older male figures it didn't exactly ring true.  Also the ending felt super rushed.  Not only because Cameron had to get out of Dodge, but Jenna's sexual experiences were glossed over and pushed aside as if they meant nothing to her even if she did it with a good guy, it was for bad reasons and at that age, and it being her first times I felt those encounters would have had a much stronger impact on her development as a person.  

I wanted a lot more resolution than the book even hinted at.  The identity crisis is not resolved.  Will Jenna keep stealing?  Doubt it, but we don't know.  Binge eating?  No.  She's not shallow but she likes how she looks and understand the work it took to get the body she has.  Will Jenna keep having comfort sex with guys as a physical escape from all that causes pain and confusion in her life with no regard for consequence, emotional attachment,  or underlying problems?  Probably.  None of these 'escapes' or regressions back to Jennifer (sans the sex of course) were ever addressed.  This is the main reason Cameron as a character felt false: he was a great vehicle to aid Zarr in telling a powerful story; he shows up, causing tons of tension, but then leaves, and not a lot has changed let alone been resolved. 

If you've read enough of my commentaries you can probably tell I loved this book.          

The title is not awful.  The cover would be great for a different book.  My 'best book of 2012' Once was Lost recently got a re-release with a new cover and title.  I think the same treatment would benefit Sweethearts.  That said, who cares?  It's got Zarr's name on it so go read it and enjoy both days it will take you to finish.  Zarr really has a firm grip on the 'strong young girl, all alone, with negligent parents, emotional and psychological suffering' thing down.  As in she's excellent at that, and proven it at least twice.  Here's to hoping that her May 2013 release shows that this wonderfully talented author can offer some diversity.   

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