“Sweethearts” by Gemma Gilmore

I have another LGBTQ book to review today, which is appropriate, since it’s LGBTQ history month. Actually, if I’d planned this better I would’ve had only queer book reviews for the month of February, but I had a few ARCs that had to be reviewed, and anyway this blog is fairly heavy on the LGBTQ content the rest of the time too.

Anyway, this was a book I requested from NetGalley mostly on the basis that I haven’t read enough f/f YA. The representation was great, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the rest quite so much.

sweethearts

Publication date: January 29th, 2018

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book. I did. I cared about some of the characters, and I also enjoyed reading a book where although teen pregnancy was featured, it wasn’t the source of the book’s angst, and was for the most part, not even portrayed particularly negatively. There were several interesting drama-free relationships and a strong focus on friendship, including platonic friendship between characters who had briefly dated when they were younger, which I appreciated.

However, I had a few problems with it, and they were mostly stylistic.

Firstly, there was just a lot going on. The narrator, Ingrid, is having a sexuality crisis. Her best friend is pregnant. She’s also applying for art school. Her best friend’s boyfriend wants to be an artist too. There’s a popular singer / YouTuber involved. Underage drinking and alcohol dependency is a theme.

Having a lot of crises and issues in one book isn’t inherently a bad thing. Life rarely has the good sense to give us one thing to deal with at a time, and having different characters balancing their problems simultaneously can be both engaging and realistic. However, I didn’t feel like the pacing worked. The book jumped very rapidly from one issue to the next, without ever fully getting to grips with the meat of any of them. I also felt the alcohol plotline was weirdly underdeveloped, and would probably have liked it even less if I hadn’t known it was coming from another review.

The pacing was also weird on other levels. Characters were introduced very suddenly — for example, there was very little indication that Ingrid and Jackson (her best friend’s boyfriend) were close friends or even friends at all until suddenly they were hanging out without Summer (her best friend), so it kind of threw me off momentarily.

The catalyst for Ingrid’s realisation for her sexuality is that she dyes her hair pink, gets noticed by an artsy queer student, and thus invited to a gay club where she realises… oh, this is my thing.

The pink hair thing? Never really explained. We don’t even see the scene where she dyes it, or get any glimpse of her motivations for doing so. It just kind of … happens. And hey, I relate, I’ve gone through phases of changing my hair colour every month and cutting it all off because I was stressed and so on, but it still seemed kind of underdeveloped given that it’s referenced throughout the book as a turning point in her personality.

Moreover, everyone talks about how much Ingrid’s changed recently, but we never really saw enough of her before this happened to know if that’s true, so it felt a little understated.

The girl who invites her to the club is Kat who appears out of nowhere, befriends Ingrid (in a somewhat condescending and even occasionally predatory way, as a more experienced person inviting someone confused about their sexuality to start figuring it out), has apparently been watching her for years, and generally just seems dropped into the storyline with very little warning at all. The book isn’t very long — maybe that’s part of the reason everything seems so sudden.

Ingrid also has a very bizarre relationship with Amber, a singer whose music Ingrid has been obsessed with for years. We’re told — though we barely see — that Ingrid has been bullying and otherwise being cruel to Amber for years, despite being obsessed with her, because she’s jealous? Or something? But Amber has an eternally forgiving nature and wants to be friends, and there are several heartfelt declarations about this, but… I don’t know. It just confused me, and didn’t feel particularly realistic. I wouldn’t particularly want to be friends with someone who’d been mean to me for years, whatever their reason for it.

Throughout the book, the plot jumps around between the various different issues, with a lot of dialogue that feels… kind of clumsy and overdramatic, to be honest. There are too many heartfelt speeches. Seventeen year olds are not that great at talking about their feelings, in my experience! I mean, maybe these guys are particularly open, but they were still way too articulate about their issues.

Because of this, it was difficult to really engage with the core characters. Don’t get me wrong: I liked Ingrid, except for the glimpses of her mean side we saw with regard to Amber, and I related to her a fair bit, especially when she talks about secret feelings of jealousy and bitterness towards her friends despite consciously wanting the best for them. Too real. I liked Jackson and Summer, who had a surprisingly undramatic relationship considering the whole ‘teen pregnancy’ thing; both were also great friends to Ingrid, even if she was the third wheel.

But I just didn’t find their problems convincing enough to deal with them, because I was trying to keep track of too many things at once — and because so many of the emotions involved seemed very overstated.

That’s not to say it was badly written on a sentence level. There were some beautiful descriptions of Ingrid’s art and how she feels about it, and some really empowering statements about emotions. But the dialogue and structure needed work.

I did really enjoy the representation. I thought it was great that Kat was portrayed as questioning without having settled on a label yet, and this being a valid approach. Ingrid’s art and Amber’s music were interesting parts of their characters, and I liked that Summer was a pregnant teenager who didn’t view this as the end of the world or a total disaster. I liked that Jackson and Ingrid were able to be friends — there were a lot of great platonic relationships in this. And of course, F/F relationships are still rare in YA fiction, so I’m never going to complain about those.

But it felt structurally weak and confusing, with characters being introduced too suddenly and the plot jumping around too often, and that stopped me from enjoying it more.

Rating: **

Buy ‘Sweethearts’ on Amazon (UK)
Buy ‘Sweethearts’ on Amazon (US)

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