Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
I've learned to live with it.
The taste of peppermint makes me sneeze, the sound of Anthony Bourdain's voice makes me fall asleep, and reading Sara Zarr makes me burst into tears.
I've given up on trying to understand the first two things, but I've been giving some thought to the Sara Zarr situation. I don't have much in common with the protagonists of either Story of a Girl or Sweethearts, and I can't particularly identify with their experiences. However, Zarr is so masterful at conveying a teenage (and more generally, human) sense of isolation, frustration, confusion, and powerlessness that it's impossible not to identify with those feelings, if not with the circumstances that gave rise to them.
At the beginning of Sweethearts, we meet Jennifer Harris in elementary school, an overweight girl with a lisp, a 10-year-old who washes her own clothes in the apartment laundry room while her mom's between work and nursing school so the other kids don't tell her she stinks, an outcast who's tormented by everyone in her grade.
Except for Cameron Quick.
The two outcasts bond together, but it's not the usual kind of outcast childhood friendship, born out of exclusion from every other corner. They take care of each other, understand each other, and what's more, they truly love each other.
And then one day, Cameron disappears. The teacher tells her he moved, the bullies tell her he died, and Jennifer's mother won't say anything to confirm or deny either suggestion.
Flash forward eight years. Jennifer Harris is gone, and Jenna Vaughan has taken her place. Jenna has lost the weight and the lisp, she's enrolled in a new school, her mother has remarried a genuinely decent man, and the outcast Jennifer has been replaced by a pretty, popular teenage girl. Still, Jenna isn't comfortable with her new self, and she holds her new friends at bay with clever small talk and a happy, uncomplicated demeanor.
And then, Cameron Quick comes back, and everything changes.
Jenna is now old enough to ask hard questions, and begins to understand more about the harrowing circumstances of Cameron's home life then, and why they were kept from her. And she's also forced to reexamine painful and frightening memories in their shared past, as well as her own transformation to the person she is now. How much can people change? Can you ever really escape yourself? The answers here are hard, but also hard-won.
When I read pre-pub descriptions of Sweethearts, I was skeptical. The plot just seemed too bizarre to be realistic, and yet, it is. I tried to find a passage from Sweethearts to demonstrate what makes it so emotionally powerful, but that's not how Zarr works. As in Story of a Girl the language is fairly unadorned, and there's no one paragraph that encapsulates it all.
The book's exceptional resonance is accumulated gradually, painfully, and realistically, and in the end, it feels like you've experienced the long-repressed build to a good cry alongside the protagonist, rather than the emotionally manipulative line that sets you off.
Zarr's books will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen (Someone Like You, The Truth About Forever) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Prom), but her ability to strike deep, immediately recognizable chords of feeling in her readers sets her above even these YA fiction stars.