Allison's Book Bag

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Posted on: May 29, 2014

A Cybil Awards Finalist that has been featured on the Oprah Book Club Kids Reading List, Sweethearts by Sara Zarr is the story of what happens when a long-lost childhood friend comes back into the life seventeen-year-old Jennifer. It’s also about her being an outcast and remaking herself, even to the extreme of taking on a new name, only to find that what she wants in the end is to be accepted just as she is.

Anyone who has ever felt like a misfit will relate to Jennifer. She is not a misfit just because the author says so. She’s overweight, speaks with a lisp, bawls like a baby, and steals food from her classmates. Everyone at school calls her Fattifer. Granted, the reasons you were rejected are probably different, but the emotions will be the same. They always are. You will understand why Jennifer wishes desperately to be invited from the sidelines. You will know why it’s so important to hold onto those fleeting moments and memories with the one friend who does care. And you will agree that losing that friend would be the worst hurt, a pain which nothing anyone says or does can ease. Truly, the success of a character-driven story is in the portrayal of emotions. At which Zarr is a master.

If you have ever wanted to escape your past, Jennifer’s story will also feel like your own. She learns to make her face blank in the face of bullies. Even when it means cleaning clothes by herself in the scary apartment laundry room, Jennifer makes sure she smells right. She also practices her speech therapy, until there isn’t any hint of her lisp. When she’s home alone, and seeks solace in food, Jennifer forces herself to stick to a diet of carrots, pickles, and all things healthy. She even watches how others handle themselves and then practices being like them. The ways you have tried to change your life are again probably different, but the reasons for the attempt will be the same. Almost anyone who has struggled with insecurities has at one time or another wished to move to a new town, start a new school or job, or simply meet a new circle of friends. In the new environment, where no one knows our name or past, anything can happen. It certainly did for Jennifer, who makes friends for the first time, gets a boyfriend, and has positive school experiences.

But there’s an old saying along the lines of: We take ourselves with us, wherever we go. In high school, I tried to distance myself from my studious image. When I headed off to college, I tried to dress like the popular girls. In a community desktop publishing program, I immediately introduced myself to everyone in an attempt to break free from my shy and introverted self. And yet to this day, ones will tell me that I’m hard to get to know. I’ve also never shaken off my insecurities. And the same goes for Jennifer, who often has to fake the smiles and wait for the good feelings to kick in. The situation only worsens when her long-lost childhood friend suddenly reappears.

Zarr’s desire to write Sweethearts arose from an effort to understand how people who hadn’t seen each other since they were children could meet again as adults and still experience a strong bond, one which feels as if they had known each other their whole lives. The idea makes for an offbeat plot with unresolved issues, but the result is a surprisingly satisfying novel. Sweethearts apparently inspires the largest percentage of fan mail of all her books, and girls name it as their second favorite Zarr book. It took me a second read to fall for it, but now I love its angst and charm.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

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