Sweet by Emmy Laybourne
Genre: Young adult suspense
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release date: June 2 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: A story that starts out strong, but soon turns into a silly mess with too many plot holes and amateurish writing that just didn’t work for this (non) YA reader.
Despite my two-star rating, there are some things I enjoyed about Sweet, but unfortunately, they weren’t enough to tip the scales into a higher rating. The story alternates between two voices: Laurel, a slightly overweight teen who joins her friend on a weight loss cruise; and Tom, a formerly chubby child actor who has since trimmed down and become a real hottie. It won’t surprise anyone that Laurel and Tom become romantically entangled, and despite the insta-love nature of their romance, I quite enjoyed these two characters, especially Laurel. The set-up is great: the CEO of a famous beverage company has invented a sugar supplement that guarantees weight loss—without dieting or exercise. He’s launching his product, named Solu, on an exclusive seven-day cruise called “Cruise to Lose,” where celebrities and rich, overweight folk can try it for the first time.
However, after several days ingesting cream puffs and muffins sweetened with Solu, the guests aboard the Extravagance begin to act…strangely. And it isn’t long before “strange” spirals into “violent.” Luckily, our plucky main characters have decided not to try Solu—Laurel because she’s actually OK being a size 14, and Tom because he’s on a strict diet due to his childhood obesity, and he would never think of putting something foreign like Solu into his body—and it’s soon clear that if anyone is going to save the day, it’s going to be Laurel and Tom.
Although Laybourne states in her Acknowledgments that she has not written an “issue” book, Sweet is loaded with messages about body image and loving yourself the way you are, which are wonderful messages indeed. As I mentioned before, I loved Laurel’s character because she loves herself. Laurel has grown up with a father who tells his generously plump wife daily how beautiful she is, and this behavior has shaped Laurel into a teen who is more interested in playing guitar than worrying about what size her bathing suit is. Her best friend Viv, on the other hand, has not been so lucky, and she’s developed a binge-eating disorder and is obsessed with losing weight. Laurel also has a penchant for combat boots and black jeans, and I loved her even more for being herself and not trying to dress like everyone else on the cruise.
The author also makes strong statements about how advertising is contributing to American obesity, and I have to agree with her, but I didn’t really like the way she executed it. The inventor of Solu, Timothy Almstead, has become rich off his popular soda Pipop, and now he’s looking to conquer the sugar substitute market with Solu. As the guests on the ship become quickly addicted to the sweetener—which, by the way, is beautifully packaged in lavender sugar packets (designed specifically to attract the eye)—I could see the story start to devolve into a cautionary tale about fad diets and the dangers of eating junk food.
And finally, as far as messages go, Laybourne’s story is about America’s celebrity culture, and our obsession with following their every move. A Kardashian-like starlet named Sabbi Ribiero joins the cruise as the “talent” and Tom is encouraged to “start a relationship” with her for the sake of TV ratings (Tom is hosting a show that will bring the Cruise to Lose experience to the masses). Laybourne does a pretty good job making Tom likable, because once he meets Laurel, he finds he’s not interested in any of the other bathing beauties on the ship, including Sabbi.
Unfortunately, when Solu starts to affect the characters in terrible ways, Laybourne’s tale starts to lose credibility and panache. What could have morphed into a frightening horror tale simply made me raise my eyebrows in a “What? That’s it?” sort of way. Laurel’s first person voice, which is cute and endearing at the beginning, started to annoy me with all her dramatic proclamations and obvious statements. Even worse is the fact that the characters were slow to pick up on clues that I saw immediately. When you start shouting things like “No, you idiot! The Coast Guard isn’t coming!!” at the characters, you know you’re in for a bumpy ride.
The twist at the end was just too much and was ultimately why I only gave Sweet two stars. If Laybourne’s idea was to shock and horrify us with her over-the-top plot developments, then she definitely elicited the wrong reaction from me. I was shocked and horrified all right, but probably not the way the author intended.
Plenty of teen readers are going to love this book, and I certainly approve of Laybourne’s messages about body image and being true to yourself. As for the rest, I wish she’d taken the time—and more pages—to better develop her story and characters. If you’re really in the mood for a cruise-gone-wrong story, I highly recommend Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant, which has less than half the page count and twice the horror.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.
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