I had heard a lot about Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts and, being on something of a YA kick, decided to give it a go.
The story centred on Jennifer Harris, a former outcast and bullied child, now grown up and remodelled as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna has gone from feeling like an outsider; unwelcome and unwanted by the other children, to becoming the image of a straight-A, popular, ‘normal’ teenage girl. She has worked tirelessly on ways to fit in, eradicating the things the other kids used to tease her about: her lisp, being overweight, not having the right clothes, being too sensitive etc. The catalyst for all this change was the loss of her best friend Cameron Quick, who was equally despised by their classmates, but who loved and accepted Jenna for who she was.
One day Cameron stops coming to school and Jenna believes he’s died. However, on Jenna’s 17th birthday, nearly 10 years later, Cameron comes back into her life and overturns everything Jenna believes she wants, forcing her to confront her past and consider whether she really is Jenna Vaughn or if she still wants to be Jennifer Harris.
I enjoyed Sweethearts; it was easy to read, moving and the characterisation and narration of Jenna felt natural and real. I think a lot of lost, misunderstood teenagers could relate to her and her struggles to fit in. Like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, Zarr chose to write about children with difficult, unusual home lives. It’s interesting and refreshing to read about children for whom starting afresh is a necessity rather than a choice and I think Zarr did a good job of showing how important the acceptance of her classmates was to Jenna in the context of her home life and how her ‘odd’ behaviours linked directly to how she lived. Similarly, I found Cameron’s distance from his classmates totally convincing – how could he relate to his peers or be interested in typical teenage concerns when he’d had to be an adult for so long?
The exact nature of the bond between Jenna and Cameron was at times unclear. I had assumed friendship at first, but the story seemed to steer towards romance later on before finally settling somewhere in between. I wasn’t entirely convinced by a relationship that was more than friendship, but not quite at a romantic level – it wasn’t obvious what Cameron and Jenna were to each other, or why their bond was quite as strong as it was, but in Zarr’s defence, Jenna and Cameron didn’t really understand it either. I came to the conclusion that they had been drawn together by their lonely childhoods and bonded by the trauma of Jenna’s ninth birthday and that was what had permanently solidified their connection. I liked the idea that the friend who had seen and accepted you as you were at a young age would always give you the strength and freedom to be yourself, no matter how much time had passed (this is certainly true for me and my best friend).
I liked the slow reveal of the horror of Cameron’s childhood and I thought that his characterisation reflected both this and his role in Jenna’s life: strong, silent and challenging. His unreliability felt to me to be reflective of the fact that Jenna was holding on to her life too tightly and that she has to relax the reins and allow herself to be true every now and again, to remind herself that we cannot control everything around us, however much we want to.
I thought a few things were tied up a little too neatly (and this is where the superlative Eleanor and Park succeeds over almost everything else; things are allowed to be and stay messy*). For instance, though Jenna had obviously worked hard at making herself over, she had also moved schools to somewhere progressive and inclusive, leaving her bullies behind her. Undoubtedly, the effects of such torture don’t only show up in the immediate situation, but she did now have friends who were (mostly) kind and trying to be good to her. Similarly, her mother remarried and gained additional income and security. Having an extra pair of hands – partner or not – to help out with childcare is clearly going to help them manage as a family. I didn’t feel like Zarr really explored how these things might have positively helped Jenna move forward. Alan (her stepfather) was clearly great, but not much time is spent on the things that went right that were not Jenna’s responsibility. I think it might have rounded her character out a little more and shown the contrast between her life and Cameron’s even more starkly.
I also found the moment when Jenna finally tells her mother off for not being there a little anti-climactic. Perhaps that was more realistic, but I feel like it’s accepted and forgiven really quickly. It’s clearly something Jenna has carried with her for some time and I would have liked a bit more discussion between her and her mother about why things were the way they were.
I reached the end of the novel feeling sort of unsatisfied but in a good way. I liked Zarr’s decision to have a more open ending and not hand the reader too many solutions or endings on a plate. It felt truer to the characters and more reflective of real life. Though there were a few things that felt a little rushed or unfinished to me, I would recommend Sweethearts and would definitely read another Zarr novel, as I thought the voices and characters were beautifully realised.
*Look, I know I keep going on about it, but that book is amazing and you should read it already, ok?