Book Review: Sweethearts, by Sarah Zarr

Molly O’Neill, an editor at Harper Collins, recommended Sweethearts to me when we got into a Twitter conversation about friendships and their depiction in young adult fiction. In a world where romance seems to be the name of the game across the board, it’s getting really hard to find books that are simply about friends and the meaning of friendship, rather than romantic love. It’s a subject dear to my heart and, it seems, to Molly’s as well—the book ended up being an excellent read and I’m glad she suggested it.

Jenna Vaugn grows up poor and universally unliked, except for her best friend, Cameron. He disappears under mysterious circumstances and Jenna’s led to believe he’s dead. As she hits high school, her family undergoes a radical change and she leaves her old self, and her past, behind. The past can’t stay hidden forever, though, and Cameron roars back into her life, flipping everything around her upside down, including her relationships with her parents, her friends, and her boyfriend.

I love the dynamic between Jenna and Cameron, both as children and young adults. In both settings, they’re intimate, sharing a lot with each other and enjoying a complex emotional relationship. They’re also categorically friends; there is no romance here, even though they sleep in the same bed and engage in other activities that people might misread as romantic in nature. Cameron and Jenna are deep friends, and enjoy a different kind of relationship than she does with other people, both because of what they’ve been through together, and who they are.

Cameron’s a troubled teen, struggling with the legacy of his own past, and one of the reasons he looks Jenna up again is to get some resolution. Both find that it’s not as easy to get resolution as you might think, and there’s a particularly interesting part of the story with Jenna’s mother, who clearly experiences some guilt about Jenna’s childhood and desperately wants to make it up. Sweethearts explores what happens when people attempt to mend fractured and complex relationships years after the fact, and how you can’t just erase the past with good intentions in the present.

Sweethearts is about strong and seemingly inexplicable bonds that can exist between people in a firmly aromantic setting, and it was really a breath of fresh air for me. I’m so frustrated with being inundated by romance left and right, as though it’s the only kind of meaningful relationship people can have; friendships are routinely treated as secondary to, or training for, romance, and they often fracture as characters develop romantic relationships. In this case, it was the platonic friendship between Jenna and Cameron that occupied centre stage and needed to be addressed, and I’d like to think that at least some readers saw themselves in the book and hopefully recognised that their deep friendships are valuable, and normal, and nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.

There’s a lot going on in Sweethearts beyond the friendship, of course; the book also explores the aftermath of molestation, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Books confronting these issues when they happen to young children are relatively rare, and I like that Zarr went there, and breathed depth and complexity into the storyline. I also love that while she gave Jenna agency, showing how she freed herself from a dangerous situation, she didn’t imply that young children are somehow responsible for getting out of abusive settings. She placed that responsibility square on the adults around them, the people children come to with trust when they’re looking for help, and made it clear that victims of molestation and abuse have nothing to be ashamed of; that this may be a thing that happened to them, but it doesn’t make them broken or wrong.

That said, Cameron in the book is kind of a classic example of the struggling teen who can never fully come to terms with his past, the one who ends up dropping out of high school and working a shit job to support his family, and I have mixed feelings about his ultimate depiction. Yes, this absolutely happens to older children in abusive families and it’s terrible, to see children saddled with responsibilities far above their pay grade and driven by a sense of dedication to their siblings and a need to do the right thing. That said, a more in-depth critique of the lack of social support would have been an excellent counterpoint to Cameron’s story, showing that Cameron’s not a failure: the society around him is.

One of the storylines in the book is also about Jenna’s relationship with her body; as a child, she was fat, and one of the things she did in an attempt to suppress the past is get as slender as possible through a fierce exercise regimen and dieting. The storyline wasn’t handled as well as it could have been, because it was sort of implied that being fat was bad, and the weight loss was an accomplishment for Jenna, even though I don’t think that was actually Zarr’s intent. In parts of the book, Jenna’s disordered eating is highlighted, illustrating the fact that she has a bad relationship with food and probably always will, and her exercise isn’t always depicted in a healthy way. Slightly more sensitivity could have made that storyline much stronger, and more interesting.

Overall, I’d give Sweethearts high marks, though it does stumble in places. There’s a lot to explore and discuss here, particularly in terms of the friendship between the main characters, and I’m not surprised that Zarr gets large amounts of feedback from the book, particularly from readers touched by the inclusion of friendships like their own.