Review of Sweetly
Sweetly, by Jackson Pearce, is a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel. From the beginning, though, Pearce adds her own little twists while still being faithful to the original(s). In her version, the two main characters are brother and sister, but their names are Ansel and Gretchen. It hasn’t always been just the two of them; when Gretchen was six, her twin sister was taken in the woods by a creature with yellow eyes, a creature that Gretchen has since called the Witch.
Twelve years later, things have gone further downhill; while Ansel and Gretchen are still hurt and healing, their mother died years before from grief, causing their father to turn to alcohol and eventually die himself. Their stepmother, unable to bear the sight of them, turns them out of the house. Feeling this is best for all of them, the two pack up their Jeep and head to North Carolina’s beach, where Gretchen dreams of an open, warm, and sunny place that is free of dark forests. But when their car breaks down outside of Live Oak, Georgia, Ansel and Gretchen are forced to walk into town to try to get a tow. It’s obvious from their first entrance into the town café that the village is not welcoming to outsiders. There is one person who is willing to help them, though: Sophia Kelly, who needs assistance in running and repairing her sweet shop on the edge of town.
At first, Gretchen and her brother are wary of staying with Sophia, especially after hearing that most of the townspeople regard Sophia as the beginning of the end for Live Oak. However, Sophia is kind and welcoming, and what’s more, she understands the siblings’ feeling of loss for their sister. Soon, a week turns into a month, and then a few months, and eventually the sweet shop feels like home. Gretchen enjoys talking to their host and Ansel and Sophia soon begin seeing each other.
But as Gretchen gets to know Sophia more, it’s obvious that not everything in Sophia’s life is as perfect as the candy Sophia makes. There’s an underlying sadness to everything Sophia does, and her obsession with getting young girls to attend her chocolate festival is far beyond that of a simple nervous hostess. With the help of a boy from town, Samuel Reynolds, Gretchen begins to uncover who Sophia really is and if the town really does have a reason to fear that Sophia will bring Live Oak to its end and who- or what- the witch in the woods really is.
This is the second book of Pearce’s that I’ve read. The first was Sisters Red, and while I liked Sisters Red better than this book, Sweetly was still excellent. Pearce has a very unique style- it’s witty, but in less a snappy way than a more weighted, thoughtful way. Gretchen, like Rosie and Scarlett in Sisters Red, is able to show anger without being annoyingly angsty and thoughtful without slowing down the pace of the story. The character of Sophia Kelly is complex- though not as much as she might have been- and she kept me guessing throughout the novel.
One of the best aspects of Pearce’s works is that she writes wonderful action scenes. Their pace is spot on and she doesn’t hold back from describing something gruesome or shocking. What’s more, her characters- be they male or female- never become sudden action heroes when faced with danger. If they have combat skills, they earn them. Gretchen, determined to defeat the monster that snatched her sister, asks Samuel to teach her to use a rifle.
In her previous work, I’ve loved the romantic relationships between characters and felt all warm and fuzzy when they got together. But in Sweetly, I didn’t feel that way about Gretchen and Samuel’s budding relationship. This attachment felt forced, as though Pearce wanted the two to be together, but couldn’t find the exact way to make it happen. I didn’t believe that, when faced with peril, Gretchen would run to Samuel for more than borrowing his gun.
The book, as a whole, is very good. The story is intriguing and I cared about the characters. Pearce’s studies of philosophy feature largely in this book (Sophia is a fan of Nietzsche and Gretchen’s musings are often philosophical), and it makes her characters deeper. She’s not afraid to let her work be smart, and that’s one of the things I love about her writing. Definitely pick this one up!