Sweetness by Lindsay Paige
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Beautiful, intense and moving. Crazy final chapter, still reeling from that one. Full review to follow, but for now let's just go with WOW!" That was my initial reaction on finishing this, and here's my full review, after further reflection. I'm still going to leave those first thoughts up though, just so I can remember (and you can realize) the big emotional impact this lovely book had on me when I first finished it.
When we first meet MC Emily, she's doing her best to be the invisible girl in the new school where she's starting her senior year. Head down, no eye contact, headphones in/hoodie up whenever possible. And then she's paired on a project with popular Jake, the handsome hockey hero, who she expects/hopes will ignore her like the rest of her classmates. But the weird thing is, Jake "sees" her. And he likes what he sees. Maybe it's because he recognizes someone coping with a world of hurt, since he's living in one too - maybe more successfully from the outside, but it's killing him inside. Maybe if he can solve the mystery of Emily, and help her heal, something good can happen for him, too. Although that's his rationale, I think it's just that - an explanation for an inexplicable attraction that hits them both pretty doggone hard and pretty doggone fast. So fast, in fact, that it further freaks Emily out, and that might be the last Jake sees of her, until he inadvertantly discovers his "secret weapon," his younger brother Drake, who he's pretty much parenting himself after his mom's death, just a year ago, and his dad's subsequent journey looking for her at the bottom of a bottle. Drake somehow manages to slip under Emily's considerable defense mechanisms, and as the three of them spend more time together, magic happens, and both of these wounded and still vulnerable lovers feel themselves coming back to life, with the joy and pain that entails. Unfortunately, life isn't done with them yet, and it has more mean girls, drunk dads, drugged out moms and painful bitter memories to throw at them (some in forms so tangible they can't be papered over). But two are better than one, and when it comes to manning the lifeboats, these two have each other's backs when it really counts (sorry, bit of a crazy metaphor alert there!)
So that's a basic idea of "what happens." But in some ways the story details seem less significant to me than the beautiful, skillful way author Lindsay Paige creates her characters and setting, and the powerful intensity of the language she uses to draw them together, and to draw you into the story. The first thing I read from this book was a quote, added by my Goodreads buddy Chrystle Woods, and it immediately pulled me into the scene and made me want to read more. I don't usually put quotes into reviews, but this one is so apt and awesome, so moving, that I'm going to:
“If I were standing right beside her, I probably would have heard her heart breaking. It would have sounded like the cracking of a wooden bat connecting with a baseball. No, that was too clean of a break. It would have sounded like rain from a powerful thunderstorm pounding on a tin roof. Millions of drops relentlessly pounding away on the surface until it shattered into billions of tiny pieces. Pieces Emily couldn’t put back together by herself.”
Sigh. That's just beautiful to me - it captures that emotion so well, while simultaneously showing us what kind of person Jake is, that it's one of those images you wonder why no one has ever expressed it quite that way or that well before. Which kind of brings me to another point. Although this book was, to me, a compelling read that I had a hard time putting down, it wasn't in an "omg, now what's going to happen next page-turnery" sort of way. To me the book unrolled more like a series of vignettes, episodes illuminated by emotional lightning, in an intensely poetic and lyrical style (see above!). The narrative skips forward sometimes, and there are holes from the past that we only find out about after our hearts have fallen into them. The result is a tone and feeling that is perfectly captured by the book's title. We find out things about Emily and Jake that make it clear that they weren't necessarily angels prior to the circumstances that scarred them - they are real kids, with flaws and foibles. But that makes them and their story all the more real, relatable and authentic feeling.
I read some other reviews before putting these thoughts down, and a couple mentioned that this wasn't as thoroughly edited as the reviewer might have preferred. I dispute that, although it is no doubt true that there are many lovely YA family drama/romances that have been worked over by editorial teams of really cool Ivy League fine arts grads in New York publishing house high rises. Some of them are probably more polished than this, and that's not a bad thing, I've loved lots of those books (see my reviews, honest!) And yet ... maybe I can best express this with a couple of analogies. Lindsay's from North Carolina, where one of my favorite singer/songwriters, James Taylor (uh oh, showing my age alert) grew up. In his awesome song, "Copperline," he sings about his childhood and teenage years, and the still resonant memory of his first taste of moonshine (so weird, this song literally came up on my Pandora Lady Antebellum station just after I wrote those words! - I'm leaving this in!) Anyhoo, JT has had his pick of every single malt scotch, every fine liqueur this ole world has to offer (and I gather that he's tried most of them at some point!), and yet, it's that potent, kind of raw, and unedited taste of moonshine that had the emotional, as well as chemical, impact, to result in a beautiful song, many years later. Here's another: I was a lawyer in several large Chicago law firms for many years, and all of them had gorgeous, impressive reception areas where we spent enough money on flowers every week that it sometimes became a bone of contention. And yet none of those expensive formal and artful arrangements, put together by talented and sophisticated florists, ever had the emotional impact on me of the impromptu fragance of wild lilacs unexpectedly experienced in spring. This is not to say that this isn't a sophisticated and artful book - it truly is. The prose is well crafted, and obviously has been lavished with loving and knowledgeable attention. But it does have the immediacy and authenticity of a fresh, pure and unfiltered voice. To me, that's an enormous part of it's charm. So, all in all, an awesome debut by an author still in high school (sigh, where did I go wrong), who has a lovely and long career of fan-pleasing fiction ahead of her. Thanks Lindsay, for an awesome read!
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