Mar 17, 2009

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were best friends until fifth grade. They were, in fact, each other’s only friend. And they were both victims of merciless bullying at school. Then one day, Cameron disappears, and Jennifer is led to believe that he is dead. Fast forward a few years: now a senior in highschool, Jennifer has reinvented herself as Jenna Vaughn. Her mother married Alan, who is a wonderful stepfather. Jenna goes to a small school for kids who are too smart to fit in elsewhere. She has good friends and a boyfriend, and she’s all-around popular. Until one day, the day of her seventeenth birthday, Cameron returns. And Jenna can no longer keep who she is and who she used to be apart.

Sweethearts turned out to be quite different than I was expecting. I don’t mean this negatively, and if you asked me what I was expecting I’m not sure if I’d be able to tell you. I needed some time to figure out just how I felt about it. It’s a love story, but not in a conventional sense. It’s about identity and growing up, but the way it approaches these topics is also different from what I’m used to seeing. And it has a bittersweet ending—I’m a big, big fan of bittersweet.

The identity thing: at the beginning of the book, Jenna/Jennifer is clearly not very happy. She has everything she wanted back when she was Jennifer, but the effort of constantly acting out the role of Jenna is bringing her down. She smiles through her days, but she’s lonely and miserable, and convinced that neither her boyfriend nor her friends actually know her. Worst of all, she believes that they would no longer love her if they saw who she really is.

What I found most interesting about Sweethearts was how it doesn’t go for an either/or dichotomy when it comes to Jenna's identity. Perhaps the most obvious solution would be for Jenna to return to being Jennifer, her "true self", stick to the friends who loved her for that, and learn not to care about what everyone else says. But as time passes, people, especially teenagers, do change. And Jenna isn’t really Jennifer anymore. So what happens is that she realizes that her life isn’t completely artificial after all; that people have a better idea of who she really is than she realizes. It turns out she wasn’t acting all the time.

Cameron’s return is what propels this realization, but Jenna works things out on her own. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about their relationship. They obviously care a lot about each other, but they have trouble communicating openly. There were moments when I wanted to shake them both so they would just talk. But you know, I remember living through things like that: being 16 or even 20 and wanting to talk so badly, but being frozen by fear or self-consciousness or both, and swallowing my words. I remember moments when I felt that I was watching a wild creature from up close, and any sound, any clumsy movement, would frighten it away from good.

So Jenna and Cameron don’t always talk, but they share a lot of meaningful silences. There’s something else about the plot I haven’t mentioned yet: Jenna and Cameron share a secret. Something happened to them when they were children, something they have never told anyone else about. This is revealed slowly, in short scenes that are alternated with longer chapters about what’s happening in the present day. Most of the time this is a suspense technique that drives me crazy (for many reasons, but I’ll leave those for another time), but in Sweethearts it works. It works because more than what happened, what is important is how the event impacted Jenna’s life.

One complaint: I was disappointed that Sweethearts brings up the topic of eating disorders and then fails to deal with it effectively. Jenna’s eating pattern has “disorder” written all over it. She starves herself sometimes, and at other times, especially times of distress, she turns to binge eating for comfort. This seems to be a reoccurring pattern for her, because she even mentions stealing food from other kids when she was younger. So the problem is there, but by the end of the book it still hasn’t been addressed or even acknowledged. Neither by Jenna herself nor by the other characters.

I realize that Sara Zarr might have felt that exploring this issue more thoroughly would have turned Sweethearts into a story about eating disorders. And that’s really not the focus of the book. Nevertheless, the issue is there, so I’d have loved to see it be handled in more detail.

Sweethearts reminded me of my life in some ways. YA does that a lot, actually, which makes me wonder if perhaps I’m not quite over my teens yet. But anyway, I guess a lot of us have a Cameron in our lives. Someone we’re not really very close to anymore, but who will always mean the world to us. Someone that despite all the silence we’ll always feel connected to.

Reviewed at:
Words by Annie
Mari Reads
It’s All About Books
Maw Books
Becky’s Book Reviews
Jenny’s Books
Em’s Bookshelf
The Well-Read Child
Superfast Reader
Presenting Lenore
Melody's Reading Corner
Bart's Bookshelf

(If I missed yours, let me know.)


  1. Despite the very girly cover, I ordered this one already ;) That's another one of your points. And I'm so glad that I did. It sounds like a really wonderful book and I can't wait to read it.

    It's ashame that she didn't deal with the eating disorder stuff more. I'm sure there would've been ways for her to at least acknowledge it without turning it into a story about that, but I guess she didn't want to go there...You're just going to have to read Wintergirls now to read about eating disorders ;)

    And I know exactly what you mean about YA books reminding you of your own life. I feel like I never "grew up" sometimes myself. I always feel very connected to YA books...that's why I love them so much.

  2. Never of heard of this book before but I'm adding it to the list. I love bittersweet endings too so you've got me very curious about this book!

  3. Great review. I'm adding this one to my wishlist. I really like the simplicity of the cover too.

  4. You know, despite the amount of ground covered since my teen years, they are still vividly a part of me. I wonder if that's just not the way it is. If for some reason, despite all the ways we grow and change, hopefully become more accepting of ourselves for who we really are, that those years just always hold some sway. Those are tough years of change, physically, psychologically, emotionally. I think maybe that's why as adults we can still relate so easily to YA books. (And obviously that's a generalization, but for me anyway, I think there's a lot of truth to it.)

    And I love what you said about the ending...I'm a huge fan of bittersweet as well!

  5. This is one of the first books I reviewed on my blog.

    Here's the link:

    Maybe it should have been called Bittersweethearts?!

  6. I'm just not sure. I didn't like the one Sara Zarr book I read, but one of the main reasons I didn't like it was because I didn't feel like Zarr really knew what it was like to be the type of person she was writing about. The characters in this one seem to be pretty different from the one I read. Maybe I should give it another shot. Do you think it's worth it?

  7. Chris: lol, not a big fan of the cover either :P And hooray for a point! I really think you'll enjoy this. The eating disorder thing, she actually does go there anyway, because it's in the story...but by the end of it, Jenna has changed in many ways, but never actually goes "oh, and by the way, I really need to stop starving myself one day and eating like there's no tomorrow the next". And I wish something had been said about it...a resolution of sorts. You know what? Growing up is overrated anyway :P

    Iliana and Dar, I hope you both enjoy it when you get to it. As I was telling Chris, I'm actually not too fond of the cover myself :P

    Debi, you are absolutely right. And you know who has said pretty much the same? John Green. Great minds think alike :P

    Lenore, thanks for the link! Google Reader is always bad at finding older posts. And lol...probably it should :P

    Amanda: It didn't make me think, "this is the best book ever and my life wouldn't have been the same without it", but I did enjoy it a lot. Maybe borrow it from the library to see how you like it? Anyway, I haven't read Story of a Girl, but there have been books that gave me that same really weakens the story.

  8. I agree about your conneciton with YA novels. I feel the same way. Thanks for the great review. It's now on my list.

  9. I have to say the cover would have sold me :) But your review is great and I love bittersweet endings too. So I'll definitely be adding it to the TBR list.

    YA books make me feel like that too.

  10. Being in my 30's I should have got over my teen years long ago, alas I still relate easily to them and have an obsession with Beverly Hills 90210!

  11. I really enjoyed this review and have thought about reading this several times. Now you've got me all interested in finding out what the "secret" is!!

  12. I'm pretty sure I read more YA books now than I did when I WAS a YA. I don't know why...but it's true. Actually, I'm pretty sure they didn't have the selection then that they do now.

    Sounds like a good book!

  13. sounds very good, I like that theres a love story in it.
    and I like bittersweet endings too.
    great review!

  14. This book was different from what I expected, too. I thought it was going to be a cute love story. Not so much. I wanted Zarr to go a bit deeper with it, but overall I liked it.

  15. Despite the best attempts of the cover to tell me otherwise, I think this is a book I could enjoy an awful lot, so I might just have to succumb...

    (and I not you're reading The Lost Years of Merlin! that's up fairly soon in my own reading list, here's hoping it's a good'un!)

  16. I thought this book was okay. Mainly it was the ending. I am not a huge fan of bittersweet. I agree with all your main points. I do want to read another of her books. I heard Story of a Girl is good from Shauna at Readings and Ruminatations. :)

  17. Okay, I am so far behind on my blog reading I am NEVER going to catch up. lol I somehow managed to read JPod over the weekend. I finished it and was actually really surprised by the fact I found time to do so! I can't remember if you have read it yet... Good book if you haven't! A couple of my friends think it is his best, but I can't decide yet.

    Anyway, this book almost sounds good, but I don't think it is my type of book...

  18. You've sold me! I love bittersweet stories. Have to add this to my wishlist!! :D

  19. I think a little teenager lives in us all!

    You know, I think part of it has to do with the fact that when you're in your youth everything seems so big and important...and you kind of learn to numb those feelings as you grow older...but they are always still there.

  20. Great review! I enjoy good YA stories. This one goes into my wishlist.

  21. This is exactly why I love book bloggers - I would never have picked this up if I hadn't read your review. The book jacket description just doesn't make this book sound as serious as your thoughts on it.

    "Someone we’re not really very close to anymore, but who will always mean the world to us." --- And that particular line spoke volumes to me.

  22. --> So Jenna and Cameron don’t always talk, but they share a lot of meaningful silences.

    I'm a fan of meaningful silences :)

  23. Personally I really don't like the cover and it would not entice me to pick it up in a bookstore and check out the blurb. On the other hand your review did! It's a shame they don't deal with Jenna's eating, but that may have been a whole other book altogether.

    That's the great thing about YA, they remind you of yourself and how you got to where you are now. Will have to think about who is my Cameron.

  24. The cover and the title would have given me pause, but your review makes me curious. Even noticing the disorder makes a point and could lead to discussion.

  25. Nely: I'm glad I'm not alone!

    Alexa: it's funny how that cover gets so many different reactions!

    Scrap Girl: Ahh, Beverly Hills...I wasn't in my teens yet back then, but my older brother and cousins would watch it, so I watched it along with them.

    Staci: The secret is actually not as big a deal as it initially seems :P I mean, it's a big deal for Jenna, and that's what's important. But I actually expected much worse.

    Stephanie, you make a very good point...I don't remember YA books this good when I was a YA!

    Naida: It's an unusual one, but it's there all the same.

    Charley: I know what you mean. It's not that it doesn't deal with deep topics, but it's short, so there's only so much that can be said.

    Bart: lol. Yep, to me it screams "don't pick me up" too. I'm about halfway through The Lost Years of Merlin, and so far, so good!

    Brittanie: I loved the ending, but I can totally see how it wouldn't work for everyone.

    Kailana: I haven't read it yet, no...nor The Gum Thief. I need to catch up on my Douglas Coupland reading!

    Melody, hope you enjoy it!

    Amy: So true.

    Alice: I really enjoy YA too. The more I read, the more I like it.

    Joanne: Yeah, I know...the cover in particular really doesn't give the impression that it's going to be serious. Not to me anyway :P

    Lightheaded: So am I :)

    Rhinoa: You're not alone :P I'm glad I picked it up, though. And you're right...that might have been a whole other book.

    Jenclair: I don't know, maybe she is trying to make a point by making that particular problem continue. They can affect people for years and don't go away easily, after all. But what disappointed me was mostly that Jenna never quite acknowledges it.

  26. "What I found most interesting about Sweethearts was how it doesn’t go for an either/or dichotomy when it comes to Jenna's identity."

    You know, I hadn't even thought about that, but you're so right. Excellent review!

  27. I'm also a fan of bittersweet, and this just sounds like a great read. I'm adding it to my TBR list.

  28. you know, I've been thinking recently, as I'm slowly but surely approaching my 30th birthday this year, that I too might have never got over my teen years. It's kind of scary if you think about it, but it's undeniable that I feel connected to so many YA's characters sometimes more than the characters in adult fiction.
    Will I ever grow up??

  29. I've heard that this one is really depressing. I ate like that when I was a teenager but I never saw it as an eating disorder. Maybe the author did the same?

  30. Thanks for linking to my review. I read it last year and really enjoyed it. I don't remember much about the eating disorder. I thought it was more of a problem when she was younger. I can see what you mean though about wanting to address that issue.

  31. Ooh, I can't wait to read it! Great review.

  32. I had the same experience of this not being what I expected.

    And I see what you mean about the eating disorder issue. At least now Wintergirls is out there to tackle that issue head on.

  33. I love this book! The end, not so much. But I can also see why the author chose it. I can also relate to Jennifer/Jenna since I also use food to cope with my problems.
    I wish Cameron could've stayed:(

  34. Okay why are you guys making abig deal about the eating disorder thing? I love this book, very very good book. Please stop making a big deal about the eating disorder this book is lovely.

  35. and nonoymos i wish Cameron stayed too :)

  36. Annleigh, I thought my post made it clear that I did find the book lovely - I wish that particular aspect of the story had been explored in more detail, but that did not in any way keep me from enjoying the book. Readers have different experiences and expectations, so of course we'll all respond differently to certain aspects of the story. The same goes for the ending - I loved the bittersweetness, but that's because I'm me.

    (Everyone else: I always feel guilty when I see a bunch of comments I never got around to responding to...sorry guys!)

  37. "wanting to talk so badly, but being frozen by fear or self-consciousness or both, and swallowing my words. I remember moments when I felt that I was watching a wild creature from up close, and any sound, any clumsy movement, would frighten it away from good."

    I know that feeling well...

  38. I really loved this book. I was first inclined to read it when I picked it up and saw it was about a boy named Cameron. A couple of years ago, my best friend was someone by that name. As I read the book, I discovered I shared the same name as the main character. The relationship between the two was so like the one I had with the Cameron I knew, the book made me feel nostalgic and it made me cry. He's someone who is out of my reach, but I will never forget. It's a book I would like to read again.

  39. I'm doing a report and totally forgot the byfriends name! Do you know?

  40. it was a thought provoking book. It mad me kind of sad afterwards but it was good.


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