TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Before I say anything else, let me wholeheartedly recommend author Sara Zarr's first book, "Story of a Girl." There's a review in this very blog, so please click here and check it out for yourself. Believe me, "Story of a Girl" deserved all the praise it received, including being selected as a finalist for the National Book Award.
"Sweethearts," Zarr's latest novel, is much different in tone and subject matter, although Zarr's quiet, poetic writing remains constant. This is basically a small story about claiming the person you are and want to be. I know, I thought it would be a love story, based on (duh!) the title, as well as the cover image of a heart-shaped cookie with one bite removed. I guess in a sense it is a love story, but not a typical kiss-kiss, hug-hug one, if that makes sense.
Jenna Vaughn is a senior at a small arts high school in Utah. She has reinvented herself over the years, morphing from fat, unkempt, picked-upon Jennifer Harrison to thin, popular, and beloved Jenna Vaughn. Jenna's lone friend from childhood, Cameron Quick, literally disappeared from her life one day after a troubling incident involving his abusive father. In surviving Cameron's loss — Jenna was told he died — she destroys the person she once was. Growth and change are all well and good, but Jenna genuinely has little sense of herself anymore. Almost all Jenna's actions and words, including her decision to become Ethan's girlfriend, reflect how she thinks she is "supposed to" behave in order to be normal and liked. Her own wants and needs, even her true personality, have been buried.
You see where this is going, right? Cameron mysteriously reappears in Jenna's life, with little explanation as to where he's been all these years, and helps her remember who she is. That seems terrific, I agree. Unfortunately, all we know about Cameron is that he's tall, good looking, aloof, unfailingly loyal to Jenna, and possibly damaged in some way. Sadly, this remains basically all we know about Cameron even as the book ends. He plainly loves Jenna, and she him, but not in a traditional way. They don't date or even kiss, but it's as if they've shown each other their souls and now connect on a level that moves beyond high school love. While that's lovely, the relationship is so distant, so elusive, that I found it difficult to become fully invested, emotionally, in their story.
Have any of you folks read Gabrielle Zevin's "Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac"? Do you remember Naomi's damaged, lost boyfriend, James, who always seemed two steps removed from the reader? That is exactly what Cameron is like. Eh.
As I said, the writing here is just beautiful, with lyrical passages and beautiful, quiet moments that never go over the top. It's also a fairly short book with mostly believable teenagers acting in mostly believable ways, which should be good news for our teen readers. I'd say this is a book aimed squarely at the high school audience, although there's nothing offensive or graphically portrayed here, meaning younger readers might enjoy it as well. I do recommend this book. I only wish Cameron's character evolved into something more than a distant, almost mythic hero making essentially a cameo appearance in Jenna's life.