March 15, 2013

Sweetly: A Close-Up Review

"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.
" (from Goodreads) 
Sweetly by Jackson Pearce

My apologies for all the whited-out sections in this review! There were a lot of potential spoilers I had to try to sidestep with this one. 


Gretchen: I enjoyed her as a narrator. Gretchen is straight-forward, clear-thinking, and tells the reader what's on her mind; her narrative is easy to follow. She has some issues with trusting people (Sophia aside, because Sophia is the exception to pretty much every rule in this book), probably at least partly stemming from her traumatic past. Also, Gretchen is very self-aware, her voice feeling quite mature, which I appreciate since I sometimes find it so frustrating when a character is knee-deep in denial. She's really into introspective self-analysis, getting into the layers of her emotions and reactions, but it doesn't take over the plot. It was very easy to understand and sympathize with her, and even when she did something I didn't necessarily agree with, I found it plausible rather than annoying.
I wish we'd been shown more of Gretchen's parents and twin sister. We don't see very much of them in memories, and I didn't feel like I understood Gretchen's relationship with her parents as well as I would have liked.

Sophia: right from the start, I didn't like Sophia — probably a combination of the fact that I knew this was a Hansel & Gretel retelling (and let's face it, you're not supposed to trust the person with the candy...), that Gretchen was warned off Sophia, and just Sophia's altogether too shiny, bubbly, sickly-sweet personality. The ambiguity surrounding Sophia is done really well, and for a large part of the book I wasn't really sure what I should be feeling about her. She's a strange, complicated individual, as murky and enigmatic as Gretchen is clear. Also, Sophia has a definite talent for compartmentalizing. Major spoilers: in a way, you sorta have to sympathize with her, because she loved her sister and was doing all this for her. But at the same time, she was condemning all these girls to death, and she knew it and did it anyway...which is so hard to forgive. It was really interesting how she flipped between this overly bright, cheery, fake personality and the real person — guilty, upset, lonely — beneath. I almost wish we'd seen more from her perspective once we find out the motivations for her actions.

Ansel: I didn't ever really get a handle on his character or feel like his personality shone here. I do like the strong bond that Ansel and Gretchen have — I think that's a little unusual in YA — but I would have appreciated seeing more of their brother-sister dynamic. We don't see them share that much emotionally with each other, but we can tell from Gretchen's narrative how close the two of them are, particularly in terms of Ansel's role of big brother looking out for his younger sister. They're obviously very used to sticking by each other's side.

Samuel: he's a gruff, prickly sort of guy with a bit of a rough attitude. He doesn't take kindly to strangers, perhaps because he's used to people thinking he's crazy. I really loved the Samuel-Gretchen relationship. They are two people who don't normally let others in; Samuel is closed-off and still kinda hung up on his first love, and Gretchen's been in this close-knit world of just her and her brother for a long time. I think they both recognize this quality in the other person, and that's one of the things they kinda bond over. Developing this relationship requires both Samuel and Gretchen to let their guard down. The nervous anticipation surrounding a new romantic connection, the anxiety about the physicality of it, is portrayed really well here. It's new for both of them, they're unsure about it and each other, and they're not yet settled into the relationship but it's exciting at the same time. Even though we don't get that many scenes with the two of them — I would've loved some more romantic exchanges! — Pearce somehow makes it work. They don't know each other that well but there's a mutual attraction there, and they've been in these life-and-death situations with each other, so there's a certain level of trust that develops.


This is a very loose retelling of Hansel & Gretel, but even though the whole story has been completely reshuffled, many of the key elements are present in one way or another (spoilers: for instance, the fire scene is a neat twist on the oven in the original!). The whole twist with having the siblings originally be a boy and twin sisters, and then one of the twins vanishing, was really cool. It creates this ghostly, haunting presence in Gretchen's life. She can't ever really leave her sister behind, even though, in a way, she's been left behind by her sister. While Gretchen obviously remembers how it felt to be a twin, so connected to someone else, I would have liked to have seen more of their bond through memories.

I was a little disappointed that the candy shop itself didn't play a critical role in Sweetly, since it's such an important part of the fairy tale. Spoilers: I'd like to think the candy Sophia makes is magical, because there are a couple times when it seems to have an effect on the characters who are eating it. However, it isn't explicitly stated one way or the other, unfortunately.

I wasn't really sold on the main villains in this book, for a couple of reasons. Spoilers: I'm not big on werewolves generally, and I thought it was a bit of a cop-out to use the same villains here that were used in Sisters Red. It just seemed a little too easy and convenient that they turned out to be the "witch" that terrorized the children. I also would have liked some more background information on the wolves and their behaviour; sometimes it seems like the author expects us to know about them from reading Sisters Red (it's been a while since I read that one so I didn't remember the details).


Sweetly is a fairly slow-moving mystery; while there's tension, there isn't a lot of action until the very end. However, Jackson Pearce builds in unsettling clues throughout, cleverly stringing along the reader and making it creepy on a subtle level.

There were a few things plot-wise that I took issue with. For one, you have to suspend some disbelief once everything's revealed. The explanation at the end felt a little rushed; most of the book is building up to this and then it felt like we didn't get enough information (spoilers: for instance, I still don't know what happened to Sophia's mom and why the werewolves came into the house for her dad). There are a lot of unanswered questions (some of which I suspect will be addressed in the next book, Fathomless — I have to admit the ending of Sweetly sets up very well for the next in the series). I guessed a sizeable chunk of the mystery surrounding Sophia, but not all of it (spoiler: I pretty much figured out the werewolf-seashell-Sophia connection, but not the layer involving her sister).

Also, I thought Gretchen should have asked more questions of Samuel about what had happened at the chocolate festivals previously. He was rather spare on the details!

That said, I loved that the author "went there" with the ending, involving a well-choreographed, symbolic "must-die" sort of death. Huge spoilers: you could kind of see the death of Sophia coming, because Gretchen, Ansel and Samuel were the inarguably "good guys" and Sophia was certainly not, so if anyone was going to go down in a blaze of glory it was going to be her. In a way, though, I think it might have been even more powerful storytelling if Gretchen had experienced a little more suffering or loss (spoiler: for example, if Samuel or Ansel had died...although I admit that would have been bleak!)
Writing style: 

Overall, the writing here is strong. Jackson Pearce does a really good job of getting us right into Gretchen's head (the narration is quite close 1st-person). Despite the fact that Gretchen is a rather closed-off, distanced individual in some ways, the narration still puts us smack-dab in her head. This allows us to bypass that hurdle that other people have when they try to get close to her — which is necessary, I think, in order for the reader to really "get" Gretchen.

Some of the descriptions of setting and atmosphere also shine, like the chocolatier and the forest. And throughout the novel Pearce manages to create an uneasy, subtly disturbing mood, without compromising her narrator's intelligence or integrity. I didn't feel like Gretchen was really lying to us, or being stupid; she didn't have the same instincts as I did, but all the same, as a reader I wanted to like her.

Given Gretchen's penchant for self-examination, there is some repetition in her thought content. Gretchen is very aware that she's actively trying to change who she is, and these themes of overcoming fear and stepping out of the role of "scared little girl" are perhaps stated a little too obviously at times.

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Note: Sweetly does contain some mature content (primarily violence).

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