Paranormal Young Adult
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Received from publisher for review
When Gretchen, her twin sister, and her brother Ansel venture into the woods near their home in search of proof to the rumor that a witch resides among the trees, she's not sure what to expect. Certainly not the yellow eyes. Or the terror as the three of them sprint for home. And she could never have expected when they went in that only two of them would make it out.
Twelve years later, Gretchen is still haunted by the loss of her sister as she and Ansel travel to a new life by the water after their stepmother kicked them out her home. Unfortunately, their old car breaks down on the highway and they're forced to walk to the nearest town for help. Short on money, Ansel agrees to do some odd jobs for Sophia, a young woman who runs a chocolatier outside of town, in order to pay for the repairs.
Those few odd jobs meant to last a day or two turn into weeks, and Ansel and Gretchen begin to settle into life with Sophia. Gretchen learns quickly though that not everyone in town is a fan of Sophia's, some blaming her for the numerous disappearances of young girls after her annual chocolate festival. News of the missing girls brings Gretchen's own loss to the forefront, and she decides to get to ferret out truth from rumor, not realizing the witch who took her sister all those years ago now lies in wait in the town of Live Oak.
A companion novel to Sisters Red, Sweetly is a fairytale retelling with an edge, and much like a dark chocolate truffle we might find in Sophia's chocolatier, it has a bit of bitterness to it that gives this story a little extra richness of flavor. Ms. Pearce is a quality storyteller, her world and characters engaging despite not being overly dynamic or complex, compelling us nonetheless to turn the pages to satisfy our seemingly unquenchable curiosity. Her take on the Hansel and Gretel tale is nothing short of entertaining, twisting the events enough to make it refreshing while creating a solid link to Sisters Red that has us hoping and wishing for more retellings that continue on in the same vein.
Gretchen isn't one of those characters who bursts from the pages in a storm of color and personality, however she is a strong protagonist who doesn't let the grief over the loss of her sister keep her behind an impenetrable emotional barrier. We share in her pain without being consumed by it, and when she meets Samuel and begins to conquer the fear that's haunted her for years, we sit back and smile as the last shackles binding her to her past fall away, leaving her with memories instead overwhelming guilt. The romantic element is sweet without being cliched or overdone, and we find ourselves rooting for her and Samuel as much as we're rooting for her to decipher the riddle of Sophia, the missing girls, and the witch with yellow eyes.
Sophia is an enigmatic character, someone whose loneliness and pain is masked by a positivity and infectious enthusiasm just convincing enough to have us continually questioning her role in the disappearances. Readers do not have to have read Sisters Red to understand this story, though there are small clues woven in here and there that help those who have figure things out a bit quicker, however the extent of Sophia's involvement is only made clear at the very action-packed conclusion. She is a woman who exists in dualities–both happy and miserable, innocent and guilty, as well as victim and villain–making our emotional responses to her travel the full spectrum as we wonder how things are going to play out.
Sweetly is not an epic read with mind-bending world-building and unforgettable characters, but it isn't meant to be, focusing instead on unraveling a paranormal mystery that in turn knits a brother and sister back together after they've survived with a sister-shaped tear in the fabric of their lives for so long. A quick, satisfying read with a darkly captivating story, Sweetly will appeal to lovers of fairytales that have grittier versions of the path to happily ever after.