How My Teenage Protagonist Fatigue Bit Into YA Classic Sweethearts

500Here there be spoilers.

You know that particular sinking feeling you get after finally sitting down to watch a film you meant to see in the cinema, one all your friends recommend, but you’ve been super busy and now it’s 3 years later and other films have come along, and as you clear the 2 hours in your schedule for the film that you’ve heard so much about you realise you’re not going to like it?

That pretty much sums up my feelings towards Sara Zarr’s Sweethearts.

The, ‘friends,’ in question are Young Adult blog Forever Young Adult, my go-to for searching out new books. In the time I’ve been reading the blog I’ve tripled how many books I read per year, (to about 40; the girls at FYA and The Book Smugglers frequently hit over 100). Sweethearts is important business at FYA, frequently referred to as the gold standard with a reverence usually reserved for YA goddess Sarah Dessen.

The book is about a teenage girl named Jenna and her relationship with Cameron Quick. As children, Jenna and Cameron had a bond built on their outcast status, (Jenna was overweight and Cameron had a troubling home life), and when Cameron disappeared years ago she believed him dead. The narrative skips between their present day reunion and her memories of their childhood together to explore their relationship.

The story is touching and poignant. There’s one paragraph where Jenna realises that her mothers version of events, (which Jenna sees differently), is so important to her because it’s part of her foundation. Jenna doesn’t want to crush that by speaking up, but she also understands that her point of view is valid too. It’s an insight into the ways we live with ourselves and our decisions, and to the older reader it’s the beginning of Jenna seeing her mother as a person, understanding that her mother’s stories can be true and simultaneously contradict Jenna’s true stories.

Indeed the only problem that leapt out at me as a legitimate criticism was the underdeveloped peripheral characters. They seem to exist purely for Jenna’s benefit, especially her gentle and overly-accommodating stepfather Alan, and her best friend Steph who is the most blatant example of a rom-com movie best friend I’ve seen in a while. They took me out of the book every time they appeared, and unfortunately this problem extended to Jenna’s mother as well. I appreciated that a mother/daughter relationship played an important role in the book, (for the same reason I loved Pixar’s Brave), but the mothers behaviour felt erratic. For one thing she openly accepts Cameron back into their lives after letting Jenna believe he died. It’s one of those plot elements that seems to exist only in fiction so it’s already pushing the boundaries of belief, and her mother’s reaction nearly pushes it too far. It might have been more effective if Jenna had convinced herself Cameron was dead to explain why he never got in touch, but instead her school mates told her Cameron died and her mother never corrected her, thus her joy at seeing Cameron feels naïve at best since it will clearly jeopardise her relationship with her daughter.

I was also surprised that she believed Jenna’s story about her traumatic visit to Cameron’s house without argument. For all the dark mutterings of, ‘what’s going on in the Quick house,’ (Cameron’s father is clearly abusing him), it’s never explicitly said, and Cameron himself is practically mute. It would be natural to deny that her daughter was nearly a victim of Cameron’s father, as believing it is emotionally damaging and would also negatively impact the internal narrative that is so important to her. None of these individual problems are deal breakers by any means, but the contrast of Alan and Steph with a side character whose motivation made my head spin from one chapter to the next was jarring.

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Everything else was just an unfortunate confluence of my own reactions and baggage that left me outside looking in, rather than specific issues with the book itself. As a result of reading a lot of YA lately I’m suffering from a kind of Teenage Protagonist Fatigue, and while 18 year old Jenna is likeable she makes the kind of mistakes you grow out of including many instances of withholding the truth. Not a huge problem on it’s own, but when you read a lot of YA it has a cumulative effect. JUST USE YOUR WORDS. (Note: In the first Harry Potter film when Harry and Ron realise Hermione’s trapped with the troll and go after her, why don’t they tell a teacher? Seriously why?) A fair amount of drama in this book comes from Jenna refusing to just TELL people about Cameron Quick. I happen to think the One Sentence Rule can be broken whenever there’s a credible emotional reason for the person to withhold information, (i.e. it would cost them more emotionally than they would gain through clearing up misunderstandings), but Jenna’s age really shows in her certainty that if her friends knew about her past they wouldn’t want to know her. It’s true that at her age a tragic past with a child that was being abused likely wouldn’t be handled with the necessary maturity and sensitivity by her peers, but that’s not the reason she keeps quiet. She actually doesn’t want her friends to find out she used to be fat and unpopular, and learning the truth about Cameron will mean revealing her own past as well. So I was frustrated, but I also wanted to hug her and tell her that when you’re older no one gives a damn about that kind of thing, and that’s it’s very okay to cut ties with anyone who does.

The Teenage Protagonist Fatigue also altered my view on Jenna’s relationship with boyfriend Ethan, who isn’t so keen on learning about the real Jenna. Ethan’s not so much a bad guy as he is immature and unsure of how to approach Jenna’s shared history with the sexy new guy. Ethan has a narrow view of what a relationship is, (and who Jenna is), just as Jenna herself sees their relationship as a box to be ticked in the, ‘Now I’m Normal,’ list. Their relationship is ultimately unsatisfying to both of them but they’re reluctant to end it. It’s realistic, yes, but in this relatively short book my patience was tested every time they were together because the interesting story lies with Cameron, and every time Jenna contemplates breaking up with Ethan I wanted to tell her to just do it already because dragging it out is worse personally and narratively.

The baggage that bothered me most though was only partly induced by Teenage Protagonist Fatigue, and showed up every time Jenna felt guilty for getting mad at Cameron when she had every damn right to. Cameron is endearing, and we’re on Jenna’s side in forgiving him his rough edges because we understand that it’s not all his fault. But the kid’s infuriating. He turns up when he feels like it, doesn’t explain himself, and generally acts as mysteriously as possible. By the end of the book I found myself organising a PowerPoint presentation on all the reasons Jenna was allowed to be mad, and why that didn’t make her a bad person. If someone turns up at your house unannounced at 3am Jenna, getting mad is the correct response. If someone neglects to get in touch in 9 years and suddenly shows up, getting mad is the correct.. a fine response I imagine, it doesn’t exactly happen often. I still advocate getting mad though.

Every time Jenna feels guilty about being annoyed with Cameron, I was frustrated but I also empathised with her underlying struggle. It’s not just that Cameron’s past justifies his behaviour; she doesn’t want to get mad with him because Cameron doesn’t deserve for anyone to get mad at him. Like a really extreme version of being let off chores because you fell off your bike, the subtext is that Jenna wants to save Cameron any ire because he’s been through so much, even when that ire is her own perfectly justified response to his difficult ways. It’s heavy stuff, and the first time I’ve felt like I wasn’t experiencing Teenage Protagonist Fatigue because of immature behaviour but because the character was too young to fully deal with the complexity of their situation. It’s easy to see why Jenna focuses on her simple love for Cameron at the expense of more difficult emotions. But I’m not Jenna, so I wanted to tell her that getting mad is good for her, because her emotions are trying to protect her from potentially damaging behaviour, and that is way beyond the realm of objective criticism. It’s something I might not feel had I not read a lot of YA books recently, and it probably wouldn’t cause disappointment if my expectations weren’t so different from what I found. I was expecting swoony romance, and instead I was focussing on the fact that if Cameron wants to turn up at Jenna’s house at 3am for greater privacy with her that’s fine, but he has the capacity to call ahead and chooses not to. Calling ahead would demonstrate basic understanding of how outside the norm his actions are and respect for Jenna’s feelings on that. It’s not that his actions are fundamentally wrong, but he doesn’t call.

Everything is on Cameron’s terms, and he can’t seem to understand that he and Jenna have not been on equal ground the last few years since she didn’t have the same information he had. He’s not bad for failing to understand this, but there’s something in the way he brushes past it. Nor is it Jenna’s fault that she doesn’t yet understand there’s a difference in being mad at a person and wanting them to change behaviours. That it’s possible to love someone and still get answers to direct questions and get a full nights sleep. It’s about respect and boundaries and making space for each other in your respective lives, and a whole host of difficult, time-consuming things that aren’t paramount to teenagers.

So yeah, heavy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with looking at the story this way, just as there’s nothing inherently wrong with shaking your head at Harry Potter for thinking it was ever going to work with Cho Chang, (though I imagine the intention is for you to connect with the characters and remember those first flutters of romance rather than remark on their foolishness), but it does change your reaction to it. It adds a third frame to the story: 9 year old Jenna and Cameron provide the centre, framed by their reunion years later, further framed by our view as a reader and the sadness inherent in realising we can never go home. Jenna and Cameron see their bond as pure, and as a reader I wanted them to have that but not necessarily each other. I feel like as a younger reader I would be rooting for them to stay together and recapture that simple pleasure they felt in the others presence as children. In reality though I felt like Jenna would only grow more frustrated as she comes to realise that while she loves Cameron, she can’t count on him in the way adults need to. However, while this detracted from the teenage feelings of infatuation I thought I’d find, it actually added to the pure love story, as it felt like a final act of love for Cameron to leave.

That’s a lot to get out of a 200 page book with a heart biscuit on the front.

So I hope you can see how; this is a damn fine book well worth a read, and; I was disappointed, are two true and contradicting stories. I was expecting to connect with Sweethearts on a more visceral level, but instead I was stuck in that third frame, admiring the story but never in it. That’s my baggage, and it’s why I can objectively tell you this book is brilliant but I can’t recommend it the way Forever Young Adult can.

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