Saturday, January 7, 2012

Bittersweet, Sarah Ockler

BittersweetBittersweet by Sarah Ockler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"When it's like this, I don't notice the cold. I don't hear the wind howling through the empty spaces. I don't feel like a small, broken-winged bird trapped in a rusty cage." Unfortunately for MC Hudson, it doesn't get "like this" very often, and it does, in fact, mostly feel like she's small, broken and trapped. The rusty cage is the upstate New York town of Watonka, where the abandoned steel mills and frozen lake might well represent what happened to Hudson's dreams and plans for the future the day her discovery of a cheetah print bra (or is that a "cheater" print!) broke her family apart and put her promising figure skating career on ice (sorry, couldn't resist - and don't be mad, this isn't a spoiler, it happens on like page 2 or something!). When dad disappears to pursue his dreams (which seem to mostly take the shape of a series of inappropriate younger women) all Hudson, her mom and her charmingly precocious younger brother Bug have left is the diner it's always been her mom's dream to own and operate. But the fulfillment of mom's dream seems to require Hudson's full time participation and efforts, and even with the whole family pushing, it's an uphill sled, which leaves little time for Hudson to continue skating or doing much else besides babysitting and baking. Oh yeah, baking. It turns out that Hudson has another gift besides her skating prowess - baking cupcakes. Her clever concoctions (mouth-watering descriptions caption every chapter)are not only a creative lifeline for her during the dark days following dear old dad's departure, their nosh-worthy notoriety brings in enough business to sustain the diner as well, leading her mom to depend on her even more. So now, in her junior year, just as Hudson is feeling utterly hemmed in by her obligations, a potential way out appears. A chance at a figure skating competition with a hefty scholarship becomes available, but to take it, Hudson needs to barter for ice time by coaching the dismally inept Watonka Wolves, her school's hockey team (haven't won a game in ten years? no problem!). The resuscitation of her old dreams, and her plans to escape Watonka, require keeping more secrets and telling more lies than she anticipated. And when two handsome and hot hockey boys draw her into their own secrets and rivalries, things get more complicated and confusing than she counted on.

This is a beautiful book - the language is lyrical, with rich and poetic descriptions of the gritty and sometimes surprising loveliness of its setting. The characters are real feeling and sounding and are appropriately charming and infuriating as the case may be. Hudson is heartachingly lonely and loveable. To me, she seemed to have a lot more bitter than sweet to deal with, and I especially was infuriated with her frustratingly foolish and clueless father, whose abandonment resonates so powerfully with everyone but him. The story unfolds at a pace that draws you in, keeps you reading and guessing at the twists that I for one, never saw coming. Hudson's not without her flaws, including her unwillingness to open up to others, which leads to no end of trouble with her mom, her best friend Dani (who I thought could have been a bit more supportive, but let's be real, everybody's got their issues, so it's understandable). But this is a story of how Hudson finds out what her dreams really are, and how to realize them in the world she's living in now. One great element that I always love in a book (and love to comment on!), is the use of a literary work to drive the story forward and shed light on the characters' thoughts and feelings. In this case, it's the good old Scarlet Letter! Hudson identifies with Hester (go H team!), in her feelings of isolation, ostracism and, to some extent, empowerment. As she reflects on the themes of the novel, and explains them to one of the hockey hotties, she illuminates her own struggles for acceptance of her real self, and her dealings with her own and others' secrets. It's fun, thoughtful and not in the least heavy handed - it adds charm and even more clever interest to an already well crafted novel. Twenty Boy Summer was a tough act to follow, and I remember using the word bittersweet in my review of it. This one lives up to its predecessor, and confirms Sarah Ockler's place in the pantheon of great contemporary YA inhabited by Sarah Dessen, Elizabeth Scott and Jennifer Barnholdt (Hey, it's my pantheon, feel free to choose your own exemplars!).

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