Sweethearts by Sara Zarr

Jennifer Harris used to be that poor, chubby kid who sat alone in the cafeteria. Well, almost alone. There was Cameron Quick, another social outcast. Another kid living in poverty and living on the fringe of third grade society. He was her only friend and the only person who ever understood Jennifer Harris. And then he disappeared.

Years pass. Jennifer gets a new stepfather, a new house, a new school, a new name, a new life. She reinvents herself as Jenna Vaughn. Jenna Vaughn is one of the pretty, thin popular girls. She has friends and a hot boyfriend. But she also has a secret – a dark memory that ties her forever to Cameron Quick and to the old Jennifer Harris, who never really left. SWEETHEARTS is the story of Cameron’s return to Jennifer’s life and what happens when her two worlds meet.

As a National Book Award Finalist, Sara Zarr has a lot riding on this next novel, scheduled for release in February 2008. There will be inevitable comparisons to STORY OF A GIRL. Can this second book live up to that standard? Truth be told, I liked SWEETHEARTS even better. The characters in this novel absolutely shine, from the insecure third grade Jennifer and the third grade Cameron whose generosity and fierce loyalty made me want him for a friend, to the high school version of these kids, still haunted by their grade school selves. The minor characters shine, too. One of my favorites was Jenna’s stepfather, whose quiet support helps Jenna and her mother rebuild what was broken so many years ago.

Some character-driven novels sacrifice pace and tension, but that’s not the case with SWEETHEARTS. From the very first chapter, readers sense there’s a story from Jennifer’s childhood that’s not being told in its entirety. Zarr reveals that story in bits and pieces, snippets of memory and elegantly woven flashbacks throughout the book. All the while, the parts of the story left unspoken create powerful tension.

I read SWEETHEARTS in just a few sittings. When I was away from the book, I spent half my time thinking about the characters and hoping things would go well for them. They grow on you like that. Sara Zarr has written another fantastic novel –- one that celebrates the power of childhood friendships, loyalty, and inner strength. Like STORY OF A GIRL, Zarr’s new release is loaded with realistic characters, hope, and heart. The fabulous cookie cover art delivers on its promise – SWEETHEARTS an absolutely delicious read.