(Hardcover, Little Brown)
Jennifer and Cameron were best friends when they were little kids. In fact, they were each other's only friend. Then one day Cameron disappears and Jennifer's mom tells her that he died. Lost, grieving, and alone, Jennifer does the only thing she knows how to do to survive. She changes. Chubby, shy Jennifer becomes popular, beautiful Jenna. Jenna is doing fine, living on cruise control, until Cameron reappears on her 17th birthday.
Jenna is a painful character to read about at the beginning of Sweethearts. She's remade herself into a cute, popular girl but she's afraid that at any moment someone will discover who she used to be and she'll be alone and friendless just as she was after Cameron left. Outwardly, she has made friends yet she never completely trusts them. When Cameron returns, Jenna's world is thrown upside down. This was a very bittersweet book for me to read. I couldn't believe that Jenna's mom lied to her. Her mom explains that she did it to protect Jenna, but how could you do that to a kid? Don't get me wrong, it's believable in the book...it's just heartbreaking to read about. Sara Zarr breaks the mold with Jenna's stepfather, however. He is kind, loving, and genuinely cares about what Jenna is feeling. He's not the evil stepparent figure that most authors write about.
The thing that stands out most for me was the ending. It's a perfect ending and completely fits with the story. In fact, the beginning of Chapter 27 has some great quotes about the many ways in which people shape our lives. But, it wasn't the ending that I wanted the first time I read it. The night I finished the book, I even dreamed alternate endings! All night long - five different endings. In one, I dreamed about Cameron and Jenna all grown up. Weird. Despite these dreams, the ending is good and it feels right. Think Sarah Dessen minus the kiss at the end.
Sweethearts is a touching story about the friendships that we make when we are kids and the lasting impact they have on our lives. It's also a story about the fragility of children - our peers and parents also shape our lives and not always in the best ways. Most importantly, Sara Zarr reveals that endings are not really endings, that sometimes an ending is the best beginning (as evidenced by my dream montage).
And I'm not the only one that liked this book. Publisher's Weekly gave it a starred review! Here's an excerpt from their review:
This book about a former misfit who must face her troubled childhood is dark and engrossing, thanks to Zarr's full-bodied characters and creative storytelling....Other realistically flawed characters, from a mother who must learn truly to help her daughter to Cameron himself, round out this complex and bittersweet story of friendship and the meaning of "unfinished business."Zarr is also the author of Story of a Girl, a book that I haven't reviewed for this site but also highly recommend.