June 2, 2015
As Emmy Laybourne herself states in the acknowledgements, Sweet is not an “issue book.” Nevertheless, it still manages to break down an important issue in our society—an issue that is particularly important for the young teens this book is being marketed towards. That issue is our obsession with weight and how we use weight against one another, like saying someone isn’t good enough because they aren’t skinny enough or alternatively someone can be considered too skinny. These bizarre nonsensical rules not only help keep self esteem down, they also have a strong commercial component. The sugar industry may be huge, but so is the dieting industry.
Laybourne examines all of these issues in the form of a cruise. The “Cruise to Lose” is the biggest cruise since the Titanic. This cruise, boarded by the rich and famous, is to launch the new product Solu, a sweetener that actually helps you lose weight. Laurel, the hero of this story, doesn’t actually think she needs to lose any weight, but she’s not going to say no to a free cruise when her friend Viv’s dad offers to buy them tickets.
On the cruise, it only takes a day or two for Solu to deliver on its promises. People are visibly skinnier. But their weight’s not the only thing that’s different. Laurel notices people are acting strangely as well, their tempers are shorter and their behavior obsessive. Solu isn’t just effective, it’s addictive. And what started as a dream comes true, soon turns into a living nightmare.
Sweet is the kind of novel you sit down to read and then don’t get up again until it’s finished. It’s easy to become as obsessed with it as its characters are with Solu. It’s a compulsively readable story with authentic characters in an extreme situation. Just like in her Monument 14 series, Laybourne pushes her characters to their limits. And in both books, the characters feel so authentic because, though some of them rise to the occasion and others do not. Some stumble or give in to what’s easy. Though the situations in her books are unlikely, it’s easy to believe this is how real people might respond.
The main element working against this book, however, is the romance. Laurel’s characterization in this story is so perfect in so many ways that it’s almost too perfect. Even though she’s a bit curvy, she’s got great self esteem, and she plays the guitar, although her focus is on classical music and not the default “cool” bands of YA, like The Smiths or Radiohead. And the reason she’s on this cruise in the first place is her strong bond with her friend Viv. But her love interest is former child star Tom Forelli. Tom became famous starring in a television show for many of his formative years, but his career never really took off after that, which is why he’s stuck hosting things like diet cruises. Basically, from the first moment he meets Laurel he falls head over heels for her. Her childhood celebrity crush even brushes off a young starlet in order to have a shot with her, a plain Jane who wears cowboy boots on a cruise. It is all a little too Cinderella-esque and doesn’t really add to the story as a whole. In fact, Tom, is the only character who doesn’t resonate while reading. He just feels goofy and over the top.
Sweet may have a few weak links, but it has a lot of important things to say—primarily that you should love yourself and your body, fight for your friends, and not to get pulled into crazy diet schemes—and it communicates those messages without feeling preachy.