Sweethearts by Sarah Zarr
Growing up, all the kids who found themselves on the margins of kid-society were glad for the more obvious losers, like stutterer, bookworm and pudgy Jennifer. She spends recess walking the periphery of the playground, never talking to anyone and hoping no one will notice her. Until the day she decides to approach fellow outcast Cameron and asks to be his friend. They strike up a quick and passionate friendship, relying on one another to not only get through the school day, but through their problems at home. Until one day, Cameron vanishes. She is taunted at school, and told he has died. Her mother says nothing, believing this lie will be kinder than the truth.
But now Jenna’s a well-liked high school student with a handsome boyfriend. Her mother remarried well, pulling them out of poverty. She goes to an alternative high school, but still feels the need to put on a happy and well-adjusted front, never letting Jennifer resurface. Until the day Cameron comes back to town. He doesn’t just remind Jenna of who she once was, but of a terrible secret they share. Jenna is forced to come to terms with the person she’s become, the person she’s hiding from the world, and her own inability to save the person she loves the most in the world. Jenna comes to realize how strong has always been and that she doesn’t need to hide from anything, that by burying things you only give them more power over you.
This book was very readable and drove compulsively forward while leaving the reader with a deep sense of discomfort and uneasiness. One is reminded strongly of the feeling of powerlessness of being a child and how scary the authority of grownups can be. Jenna’s neglectful mother never meant her any harm, she just thought Jenna had everything under control. And when Cameron comes back and she immediately begins to mother and overprotect him, it’s because as strong and handsome and grownup as he’s become, it’s still obvious that he’s a damaged and scared little boy. The secret that Jenna and Cameron have been hiding is revealed slowly through flashbacks over the course of the book, and it’s heartbreaking not because it’s lurid, but because of the innocence Jenna lost and the fear it put into her. You really come to care about and believe in all the characters in this book, even with their flaws, and to hope the best for them, while knowing that life is tough and not everyone makes it through unscathed.