Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

I love this book. I love everything about it, including the spare white cover with a heart-shaped cookie in the center, one bite taken out of it. 
I love that it sucked me in and made me cry, and I love that I couldn't put it down and read all 217 pages in one sitting.

The narrator, Jennifer, is an outcast in elementary school. The other kids call her Fattifer and  tell her that she smells. Her only friend is Cameron, a similarly unpopular boy with an abusive father. After a frightening encounter Jennifer and Cameron have with Cameron's father, Cameron disappears. Jennifer's teacher tells her that Cameron's family moved. A few months later, kids at school tell her that Cameron is dead.

Eight years later, Jennifer's mother has remarried and they've moved across town. Jennifer reinvented herself as Jenna when she started her new high school, and now she has friends and a boyfriend. She learned how to smile and make jokes, to act happy all the time so that people will enjoy being around her. But then Cameron reappears in town--his family had moved, but he wasn't dead--and Jenna struggles to maintain her facade. "I didn't know why I was doing this, anyway, when what I really needed was to spend more time trying to pass trig. Well, I did know. I was doing it for Ethan because I thought that was part of what a good girlfriend did, and I'd spent all of junior high and high school observing those around me to see what 'normal' looked like. I'd tried to learn it from the outside in." The theme of identity, of fitting in, hits home for me partly because it is the theme of the novel I am working on.

But, and forgive me the tangent, it also made me think about a paper I wrote in college about cultural differences in the concept of identity. In Western cultures, the self stops where our body stops. In Eastern cultures, the concept of self can extend to the family, the community, even the whole country. So your actions, your reputation, are not yours alone. In the US, I wonder if we take the value of self-expression too far. There is value in being yourself, in finding your own path, but there is also value in harmony, in going along to get along, in working together.

If you are always marching to the beat of your own drummer, you never get to play with the band.

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