The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella

The unlikely, humorous, heartrending story of a teenaged female wrestler in the 1950s.

Angelina Mirabella’s debut novel, The Sweetheart, opens with an older woman’s reflections, then quickly flashes back to 1953 Philadelphia. Leonie Putzkammer is an awkward, bookish teen with no self-confidence, despite a figure her peers would kill for and some tumbling skills left over from gymnastics. When she is recruited to attend Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling in Florida, a star-struck Leonie is sure everything will change. She gains a tag-team partner, Screaming Mimi, and a boyfriend, Spider, as well as an intimidating coach. Soon she is assigned a new name, Gwen Davies–later, Gorgeous Gwen Davies and, finally, the Sweetheart.

Many readers will sympathize with the older protagonist when she addresses her younger self: “What you have wanted more than anything was change… but the idea that the old life would no longer be waiting here for you is hard to accept.” The heart of this story addresses questions of autonomy, self-determination and regret: how to become someone different without entirely losing your past, how to recover from making the wrong choices or even how to tell when you have made wrong choices. Told from an unusual retrospective second-person perspective and perfectly evoking 1950s culture, The Sweetheart is often hilarious but also filled with the wholly realistic yearnings and heartbreak of young-adult reinvention, and is peopled by familiar, sympathetic characters. Mirabella’s impressive debut offers laughter, tears, failure, redemption, striving, success and a sweetheart we can’t help but love.

This review originally ran in the January 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 7 MoonPies.

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