31 July 2012

Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

As a child, Gretchen's twin sister was taken by a witch in the woods. Ever since, Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, have felt the long branches of the witch's forest threatening to make them disappear, too.

Years later, when their stepmother casts Gretchen and Ansel out, they find themselves in sleepy Live Oak, South Carolina. They're invited to stay with Sophia Kelly, a beautiful candy maker who molds sugary magic: coveted treats that create confidence, bravery, and passion.

Life seems idyllic and Gretchen and Ansel gradually forget their haunted past -- until Gretchen meets handsome local outcast Samuel. He tells her the witch isn't gone -- it's lurking in the forest, preying on girls every year after Live Oak's infamous chocolate festival, and looking to make Gretchen its next victim. Gretchen is determined to stop running and start fighting back. Yet the further she investigates the mystery of what the witch is and how it chooses its victims, the more she wonders who the real monster is.

Gretchen is certain of only one thing: a monster is coming, and it will never go away hungry.

Sweetly was a fantastic bundle of sugar-coated, crack-your-jaw goodness.  I got Sweetly by default after I read and loved Jackson Pearce's first novel, Sisters Red.  But by the prologue, I was a bit skeptical that I was going to like it, but then the first line of chapter one told me different.  Sweetly was breathtaking with its well-rounded, pop-off-the-page characters, thrilling and sinister plot, and exquisite writing all brought together to make one sweet story.

The main character, Gretchen, would definitely win a best friend charm bracelet from me.  She wasn't some self-pitying teenager with a thimble full of brain cells between her ears; her insecurities -- backed up by her history -- made her endearing.  I cheered for her all the way; there was never that point (that's almost inevitable in some stories) where I rolled my eyes because the main character was being such a girl.  Her lack of cookie cutter emotional baggage made it easy to slip into her character and see through her eyes.

What makes Sweetly stand out in my mind is its character-driven, not romance-driven appeal.  Jackson Pearce beautifully balanced the line between character and romance, and made the romance sweeter for it.  I loved the relationship between Gretchen and her brother, Ansel, and how Ansel was fully fleshed out.  He wasn't skipped over to lend more spotlight to Gretchen and her problems.

The romance between Gretchen and Samuel was wonderfully original, more on Samuel's part than anything.  (That's not to say Gretchen pined after him -- this is not a Twilight rehashing.)  Samuel didn't hang off the heroine's arm: he was a character all his own.  They weren't lovey-dovey, they were honestly fond of each other in a way that didn't make me shout for a barf bag.

All these different aspects were brought together seamlessly by Jackson Pearce's incredible writing talent.  It's one of the few books that I've read that has almost no abstract, artsy-fartsy metaphors for life -- but still works.  I think it works all the better because I certainly don't sit and stare out my window thinking about how the wind gusting through the trees relates to life.  Gretchen was very centered; everything was compacted down to what you needed to know, and told so effectively that my eyes were flying through the pages.  I loved how there weren't pages and pages of description: Jackson Pearce simply picked key details in a setting that would make it pop instantly into a reader's mind.

Sweetly wasn't a regular fairytale -- it wasn't even really a "retelling".  It's a story about letting go of your past and finding out who you are, breaking free of what people expect you to be so that you can be who you want to be.  It was very much its own story, told with a bright, witty humor that you won't find in any run of the mill fairytale.

This book also spurred the first experience I've had where I was so engrossed in the story and so oblivious to time that I'd sat in my chair without moving for two and a half hours.  The moment I deviated from the book, exhaustion hit me.  I fought to keep my eyes open and focused on the words.  The thought never occurred to me that I could bookmark it at the end of a chapter and pick it up in the morning.  Even though I was up way past my self-allotted bedtime, I was not going to sleep until I finished.

Finishing Sweetly makes me appalled at the fact I haven't picked up Jackson Pearce's latest book, Purity.  I think I'll get on that. :)

"Okay...do I need to bring anything?" I ask as he turns and hurries to his bike.

"Yeah," he says without looking at me, swinging a leg over the seat.  "My sanity, if you can find it." (p. 105)

"Squeeze with your finger -- no, don't say anything else.  You're talking yourself out of it.  Just shoot the damn gun, Gretchen," Samuel says. (p. 111)

"You bit me.  I can't believe you bit me." (p. 183)
Book Info

  • pages - hardcover, 310
  • published - August 2011
  • publisher - Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • genre - urban fantasy
  • received via - Christmas gift :)
  • rating - 5/5
  • series - Fairytale Retellings
    • Sisters Red
    • Sweetly
    • Fathomless (Sept. 2012)