Fairy Tale, 312 pages
August 23, 2011
from Little, Brown Books
Sweetly is a companion novel to Sisters Red (which I have, but haven't read), so even though the two aren't dependent on each other, I'm sure there are things that happen in Sisters Red that would have expanded my understanding of things in Sweetly. That being said, it reads fine as a stand alone, so if you've been holding back from reading it because you feel you need to read Sisters Red first, don't worry, you don't have to.
Now, on to the story at hand. Sweetly is a really interesting take on the Hansel and Gretel story for me. There were things I really didn't like or didn't feel added to the story - and I am going to discuss them - but for the most part, I enjoyed this thoroughly. Before I get into picking it apart as I am wont to do, just know that I think this is a book worth your time.
Because of Gretchen and Ansel's past (losing their sister in the woods, losing both parents, being blamed and hated by their stepmom, etc), there is a real darkness to the beginning of the story. Gretchen is reclusive, having dropped out of school and avoiding social interaction; she lives her life terrified of the "witch in the woods". She doesn't understand why her twin - her other half - was taken and she was spared, and she is basically just biding her time, waiting for the other shoe to drop and the witch to get her, too. Ansel is her protector, but all is not right with him, either. He's a football star who once told Gretchen that he liked football because "he liked getting hit. That being knocked to the ground reminded him he was here." So there's this sort of desolation to the beginning of the story that I really liked. It felt true - these characters would feel like this, and would be trying to work through things like this - and it also helped paint the story with a sense of foreboding and sadness that I think is appropriate to the story.
There came a point where it changed, though. What started as this dark story about healing, with almost magical realist elements, eventually becomes something more...typical, I guess. Just another teen paranormal story. I don't want that comment to be construed as a bad thing, because it wasn't. For what it is, it is well-done. But the insight and sadness that I saw in the beginning I thought was a sign of the tone of the whole, and of something a little more being injected into the story. But for the most part, it wasn't. Gretchen's is still a story of healing in some respects, but for the most part, the story is a straightforward paranormal romance. It made it feel a little disjointed to me, perhaps just because of my expectations, and that was a little bit of a letdown. But once I adjusted my thinking to the story at hand rather than the story I thought I would be getting, it was completely enjoyable.
I really REALLY enjoyed the world-building. Jackson Pearce creates a little bubble in Live Oaks that has its own crazy shenanigans going on, but that still feels like a real town with real people in it. Sophia's chocolatier, though improbable, set out in the middle of nowhere (how much gourmet chocolate does a small town really buy? Especially if they have to go out into the middle of nowhere to get it, rather than through the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly?), was at least really interesting and atmospheric. It was a fun, modern take on the Gingerbread Cottage, and it brought with it a sense of magic in a more mundane way (invigorating lemon peels and calming gingerbread chocolates, rather than spells and potions and obvious (overthetop) magic). It gave the story ambience, and had the side-effect of leaving me with a persistent craving for dark chocolate truffles. (Which is rather cruel, Ms. Pearce. I blame you for the brownies I consumed.) But this was good. It was almost a full sensory experience. I would have liked a little something different in the handling of Sophia's storyline (Gretchen's constant mistrust did nothing for me, and w/o spoilers, Sophia's motivations and actions as it comes out in the end were...eh, so-so for me. Somewhat rushed and contrived). But all in all, I found Sophia, her world and her interactions with everyone interesting.
The relationship-building in the story worked for me, too, on most levels. I thought the town's mingling of awe and distrust for Sophia was interesting, and I loved getting to know her through Gretchen and Ansel. I liked her slight desperation, and her mirroring of Gretchen, and I liked how they come to just belong at her chocolate shop and be a part of her non-existent family. The relationship between Gretchen and Ansel was really lovely, too. The way they looked out for each other and always new what the other was thinking or feeling, it made sense given their history, and it was also a nice place to start and then watch them grow and begin to be comfortable on their own. The aspect of familial love is often over-looked and underplayed in stories, and it would have been a shame had that been the case here, as it is the perfect story to take advantage of that closeness and love. Fortunately, Pearce used it to full advantage.
What didn't do it for me was Gretchen's relationship with Samuel. I just didn't feel that it was necessary. I mean, as sheltered and alone as Gretchen has been, it's fine to have budding feelings or awkwardness, or just a knowledge of potential. But the relationship didn't add anything to the story for me, and I didn't feel it was all that realistic to happen (so quickly! And obviously!) for either party. They both had shit to deal with, and it was enough of a story to have them dealing with that shit, with maybe hints of potential for romance in the future. If anything, I think it became a bit of a distraction, and felt like just the obligatory YA paranormal romance. I would have respected the story - and Pearce - more with the restraint to keep romance light or non-existent, and to focus on the deeper issues at hand. There was a little bit of plot-holiness with the crux of the story, too, which I don't want to get into (spoilers!), but that left me feeling like the reasons behind things were a bit thin.
And there you have it. It's a bit of a mixed bag, with some largish things I didn't like, but an overall thumbs up. I know that part of this is me being picky because of what I saw in the book. When the potential for something I'm going to love is there, it KILLS me to not see it realized, and I always go harder on the book then. But that's my own nonsense to deal with, and I really did enjoy this book. I'm a sucker for retold fairy tales (as you know), and this one is one of the better modern retellings. I'm certainly looking forward to having a break in my schedule to read Sisters Red. And even more than that, I am very eager indeed for the next book, Fathomless. I think, from the end of Sweetly, that I have some hints as to where that story will be going, and I am intrigued. It'll be a wishlister, for sure.
SWEETLY hits stores tomorrow!!