Yesterday quite a few folks blogged about the books they couldn’t wait to read, and on several lists was Sara Zarr’s new book, Sweethearts. It wasn’t on mine, because an ARC had arrived at my work address that morning, and I had already started reading it. A bit at lunch, a bit more in the car on the way home, before finally settling down to do some more modeling good reading behavior for my children.
Jenna Vaughn is not real. Sure, she sits at her high school lunch table with nice looking people, including her nice looking boyfriend, and she looks pretty nice herself. But her friends don’t know that inside Jenna is Jennifer Harris. Jennifer, the fat neglected child of a too busy mother, mercilessly taunted by the other kids, a loser, an outcast. Not too lonely, though, because she had Cameron, another outcast, as her faithful comrade.
For a few years they had each other to love. Because of this, Cameron was (almost) surviving his sadistic father, and Jennifer was (almost) surviving the lack of any familial affection. Then Cameron disappeared on Jennifer’s ninth birthday, without saying goodbye. The other kids told Jennifer he’d died. Her mom didn’t deny it. So Jennifer struggled on, with half of herself gone*, till she changed schools, her name, and herself, becoming Jenna. The aching jaws from keeping Jenna’s happy smile on were a small price to pay.
But Cameron returns, and so does Jennifer.
"I ran a paper towel under the faucet and pressed it to my face, looking in the mirror to check the status of the redness of my eyes. Baby. Then a voice from underneath that, one I hadn’t heard before, talked back. You’re not a baby. Babies don’t tear away window screens with their bare hands to save themselves. I closed my eyes, wanting to hear more, trying to block out any image of Jenna Vaughn that obscured my view of Jennifer Harris. But apparently she’d finished talking."
The engrossing story of what happened to Cameron and Jennifer is unfolded slowly in flashbacks, tied in to Jenna’s own remembering of the two children who in her mind had died. Often when I read books about unhappy or abused children, the unhappiness is so much front and center that I find it hard to empathize with the main characters. But because the present time of this book is a time of facing the past and coming back together (Jennifer and Jenna, Cameron and Jenna, Jenna and her mother, Cameron and his siblings), this is not so dark a read as many others on similar themes (although in all honesty the level of abuse here is as nothing compared to some*).
This is a great read, with memorable characters, and a fascinating story. Sara Zarr writes about these two sad children with great compassion and respect--respect in that her characters aren’t given any easy answers. And more to the point, from a reader’s perspective, she doesn’t offer an easy answer to the question that everyone reading this book will still have at the end of it. I guess she is expecting us to be smart enough to figure something out for ourselves. Sigh. I’d rather know.
My only quibble lies with Jenna’s relationships with her high school friends, which felt a bit two-dimensional and not quite convincing. But when you have a main character who knows she isn’t real, I suppose it becomes tricky to create real friendships for her…
*Hence the cover showing a heart with a bite taken out of it
**Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin, for instance, or Bad Girls Club, by Judy Gregerson
In the interest of full disclosure: I got my copy of this book from the publisher, along with a small box of candy hearts (thanks), which I also enjoyed very much but which did not at all influence what I just said about the book.