After having so many books I wanted to read and blog about last month for the time theme, I was sort of stymied when trying to come up with just one book about love, or romance or, failing that, with "heart" in the title. I guess I just don't read that many romances. Or at least, conventional romances. I do like books with a love story, but it's not my first choice of subject matter. I guess it's not even really fair to say that, but I guess for me the formula of the couple meeting, falling in love and living happily ever after isn't what I prefer, and the tragic stuff gets depressing if you read too much. But I realize I'm kind of in the minority here, given the multi-billion dollar potential for romance writers.
I did, however, find something that fit the bill perfectly for this month, a little book by Sara Zarr called Sweethearts. A very quick read, the book is the story of Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick, two third graders who are the social outcasts of their community, and have miserable home lives to boot. Jennifer's mother works and goes to school and just isn't around very much, but Cameron's father is at least psychologically abusive, and the author alludes to the probability of physical and sexual abuse as well. The only bright spot in either child's life is their relationship, and suddenly even that is gone. One day, Cameron doesn't come to school, and after a few days kids begin telling Jennifer that they saw on the news that Cameron died. When she hears this, Jennifer asks her mother who doesn't confirm or deny the story, but allows Jennifer to think that this is what has happened. Things turn around for Jennifer as the years go by--her mother finishes school, gets a regular job, and meets and marries a great man. Jennifer herself loses weight, forces herself to try to make friends, starts a new school where no one knows what a pariah she used to be, even changes her name from Jennifer Harris to Jenna Vaughn (taking her step-father's name) to complete the transformation. For all of high school the change fools everyone, even Jenna--until her birthday in the fall of senior year, when she gets a mysterious letter in her mailbox addressed to Jennifer Harris, the name that symbolizes the outcast she used to be. Of course, Cameron is back--not dead, but still with many secrets, and causing a stir among Jenna's friends. The really compelling part of the book is Jenna's and Cameron's relationship now that they are older. They were too young to be real sweethearts back in third grade, and now that Cameron's back there is sexual tension that teeters on the edge of turning into something real, but is overshadowed by everything else going on, particularly Jenna's desire to maintain her image as a normal, happy popular girl. Jenna's struggle to come to terms with Cameron's reappearance feels real, trying as she does to negotiate her boyfriend's jealousy and her girlfriends' romantic interest in Cameron while figuring out her own emotions. The writing reminded me of Gabrielle Zevin's Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, another quick read for teens by an author to watch.