(Review originally posted on my livejournal account: http://intoyourlungs.livejournal.com/29894.html)Why I Read It:
I've been hearing praise for Sara Zarr since I first started following YA blogs (which was around 2009). Her books have also caught my eye at work, what with her debut (Story of a Girl) being nominated for the National Book Award. Sweethearts in particular has garnered a lot of praise from fans, more so than her debut though, so I picked it up and read it during my breaks at work (which was easy to do because of its short length).
So I'm going to say this right off the bat: I was not nearly as impressed with this book as everyone else seems to be, which was slightly disappointing to say the least.
The beginning was really promising. It starts by introducing us to Jennifer, the pudgy poor girl who's teased at school because her mom doesn't have enough time between school and work to wash her daughters clothes, and because of her weight. Thankfully she has her loyal friend Cameron Quick, who is also ostracized at school. Together, the two manage to survive school and give each other the company they both desperately need. But then Cameron mysteriously disappears after an incident between him, Jennifer and his father (which isn't revealed until later on in the novel). Jennifer is told by her peers that Cameron died, and as her mother doesn't deny it, Jennifer believes it to be true.
These scenes always make me really sad because when I was younger (though not until the 7th and 8th grade) I was bullied and made fun of A LOT. Luckily I had a small group of friends who had my back, but still.. it hurts. So reading these scenes with Jennifer really broke my heart, but I saw this as a good thing -- Zarr could write realistically and pack a good emotional punch. I could feel the emotional connection between her and Cameron despite their fairly young age, so when he disappeared and Jennifer despaired, I did too.
After that though, the novel jumps to the present day where Jennifer has reinvented herself: she goes by the name Jenna Vaughn, has lost a lot of weight and become a relatively popular person in her small high school with a solid groupd of friends and a boyfriend who most girls pine after. She's still obviously not completely happy and feels like she's living a lie, but she's managed to push that part of herself away and lives her life as Jenna Vaughn. Then, out of the blue, Cameron Quick returns and Jennifer's life is thrown into disarray as they both have to face some unwanted memories.
This part of the novel, which is the bulk of the novel, didn't work as well with me for a few reasons, which I'll put in a list:
- I'm not too sure why people swoon over Jenna and Cameron's relationship. I quite frankly found it... almost poisonous? Cameron constantly keeps secrets from Jenna -- and I realize he did this so that she wouldn't worry about him, but it was still irritating as hell -- which made his odd behaviour (such as sleeping in her car) invoke annoyance from me instead of sympathy. Actually, annoyance is what I felt for most of their interactions. Cameron also, almost right off the bat, tries to get Jenna to return to the apartment he used to live in where the "incident" happened between them and his father and gets annoyed when she doesn't want to. Seriously, what the hell?
- Jenna constantly bemoans how she's not really "herself" around her group of friends and how this is especially apparent when Cameron comes back. I understand that she didn't have the best childhood, and then of course there's the whole "incident", but her angsting felt slightly unwarranted to me. She's also always ditching her friends, being elusive and ambiguous and constantly telling her friends how "complicated" it is between her and Cameron. I get that she's a teenager and being angsty is just part of the package, but that kind of behaviour annoys me with people in real life, so I'm not especially keen to read about it.
- The whole "incident" itself. I'm probably going to sound like a huge jerk, but they dangle the whole issue of the "incident" in front of your nose like a carrot, where you keep reading because you NEED to figure out just WHAT happened and why it's so horrible. So when it was revealed exactly what happened, I thought "That's it?". Now, I realize that what happened to them was NOT GOOD. Cameron's dad is obviously a huge creep and that kind of thing shouldn't happen to children. But when there was all that build up throughout most of the book I expected... something bigger. I felt kind of cheated.
- I thought Jenna's anger towards her mother was unwarranted. She's mad because her mom didn't pay enough attention to her when she was younger, but c'monnn. Her mom wasn't around because she was going to school by day and working all night so that her and Jenna could have a better life later on. I get that it sucks, but Jenna should've cut her some slack, you know? How was she suppose to know that something bad had happened to Jenna regarding "the incident"? Is she supposed to be a mind reader.
- Jenna's behaviour towards her boyfriend
So it's only four things, but it was four pretty big things for me. Especially when you consider that Jenna and Cameron's relationship is one of the big focuses of the novel.
All this might make it seem like I really disliked this book, and I want to assure you guys that's not exactly the case either. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. Zarr is a good writer, and her writing kept me engaged enough to keep reading. The characters are realistic in that they're exceptionally flawed, it's just that some of these flaws really annoyed me. Other ones though, not so much. An example of this would be Jenna's treatment of her boyfriend. She largely leads him on and keeps him in the dark about things when Cameron shows up and while that's obviously not very nice, I can see why she did it. When you've never had a boyfriend before, breaking up can be hard because you don't really know how to go about it (or at least, I know I felt like that) and the uncertainty of what comes after can be unnerving, especially if you share a lot of the same friends. So I think Zarr got that spot-on, and while it's flawed, it's realistic and somewhat understandable. I was annoyed that the boyfriend was painted in a villainous light though: he's controlling and he changes the subject when Jenna tries to talk about being teased when she was younger and I think that was done to make it easier for people root for Jenna to end up with Cameron and to justify her actions, which I wasn't particularly a fan of.
I think one of my favourites aspects of the novel was Jenna's friend Stephanie. She showed Jenna that not all her friends are shallow and will only like her as "Jenna" as opposed to "Jennifer", and while she never completely opens up to her during the course of the book, there's a start. That was nice.Final Judgment:
It definitely wasn't horrible, but unfortunately this book was a bit of letdown after all the praises I had heard for it. My biggest problem was the two main characters' relationship, which most people find swoony and heart-melting, but which I found mostly annoying and even kind of poisonous. They both withheld too much information from each other, making their interactions strenuous and irritating, instead of scorching and steamy. The writing was very good though, and I can see why people are such fans of Zarr; this particular story just didn't really jive with me. I am however still interested in checking out Zarr's other novels, especially her newest release How to Save a Life, in the hopes of finding a story by her that DOES jive with me.