Sara Zarr's Sweethearts was one of the first books I placed on my Amazon wishlist a number of years ago, but I was only able to buy it last Friday. Long time coming.
Outcasts Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were best friends--each other's only friend, in fact--when they were nine years old. But Cameron moves away and leaves Jennifer to deal with her share of traumatic memories alone. As she struggles to find life after him, she reinvents herself as Jenna, who's popular and well-liked and thin. But now that she's is high school, Cameron is suddenly back in her life and Jenna has to deal with loose ends and unfinished business and the definition of best friends and first loves.
I was surprised by how Sweethearts unfolded. I think it's so rare for a young adult book to winningly combine the elements of love, friendship, and coming of age (Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road comes to mind). Sweethearts may not be as epic as Jellicoe Road, but they have a similar strength about them. There's a love story here, true, but it's not quite how I had imagined a YA romance to be treated. There's teen angst and drama here, also true, but it is not preachy or overwrought. It deals with dark issues in a quietly emotional way, and at the same time it also tackles identity issues that a larger number of teens might be more familiar with. I'm a reader who tends to shy away from contemporary YA that ventures into darker territory but in Sweethearts these issues are handled with a deft hand and the characters' reactions are often believable.
Jenna is a strong lead for this narrative. Her confusion and character provide good perspective into life with a friend like Cameron, and how this friendship has impacted who she has become. I really felt as if I were right there beside Jenna undergoing all the unsettling feelings that Cameron's return has triggered. I also greatly admired how Ms Zarr chose to depict the adults in this situation. They all had their roles to play, something I often find is missing in most YA books.
Sweethearts had me wiping a few stray tears by the end. It also had me genuinely thinking about how I define 'being there for someone.' I don't think I've ever had anything that comes close to the relationship between Jenna and Cameron, and as this story proves, time will tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing. One thing's for sure: this is one of the best contemporary YA books that I've read in a long time.