In Kat Spears’s hilarious and often poignant debut, high school senior Jesse Alderman, or “Sway”, as he’s known, could sell hell to a bishop. He also specializes in getting things people want – term papers, a date with the prom queen, fake IDs. He has few close friends and he never EVER lets emotions get in the way. For Jesse, life is simply a series of business transactions.
But when Ken Foster, football team captain, homecoming king candidate, and all-around jerk, hires Jesse to help him win the heart of the angelic Bridget Smalley, Jesse finds himself feeling all sorts of things. While following Bridget and learning the intimate details of her life, he falls helplessly in love. He also finds himself in an accidental friendship with Bridget’s belligerent and self-pitying younger brother who has cerebral palsy. Suddenly, Jesse is visiting old folks at the nursing home in order to run into Bridget, and offering his time to help the less fortunate, all the while developing a bond with this young man who idolizes him. Could the tin man really have a heart after all?
A Cyrano de Bergerac story with a modern twist, Sway is told from Jesse’s point of view with unapologetic truth and biting humor, his observations about the world around him untempered by empathy or compassion – until Bridget’s presence in his life forces him to confront his quiet devastation over a life-changing event a year earlier and maybe, just maybe, feel something again.
It’s been a while since a book has made me as angry as this one did. Probably not since Fans of the Impossible Life, which got my last 1 star rating. I picked up Sway at the book store because the adorable cover and the synopsis suggested that it was going to be a cute, fluffy contemporary romance, which was just what I needed when I picked this book up. Sadly, it didn’t inspire anything but rage in me. (To be honest, the first line of the synopsis itself should have been ringing alarm bells in my head. “Often poignant”? I don’t understand. It either is or it isn’t.) But let me elaborate.
First, there is almost nothing going on in this book. If you like non-existent plots, this might be the book for you because absolutely nothing happens in this book. But of course, you can’t have a 300 page book with no content, so the author filled this book with slurs. There are highly offensive comments made by multiple characters about anything and everything, from disabled people, to women, to the mentally ill, to the overweight, and to gay individuals. I didn’t find any of it to be “unapologetically truthful” like the blurb of the book claims. It wasn’t funny or truthful. It was rude and offensive, and I didn’t think it was okay. The book makes it seem like we should tolerate rape, sexism, racism and discrimination because it’s what people deserve, and I don’t think this is a message that young audiences should be reading about or embracing.
“I’m feeling a lot of judgment coming from a kid who drools and has a bum leg.”
There is a character in this book with cerebral palsy and this issue was not explored at all. I learnt nothing about cerebral palsy or the burden felt by those suffering from such a condition. Instead, the character existed to be made fun of and to appear as an annoying teenager who constantly felt sorry for himself and couldn’t consider anybody else’s feelings. All we got was a kid complaining about how he can’t get laid and nobody finds him attractive because his appearance is different.
Which brings me to how every single female character in this book was portrayed (except Bridget, because Bridget is a perfect angel. But I’ll get to that in a second). This book labels all females as stupid, worthless and only good for sex. The way that this novel objectifies and oversexualises women is disrespectful and completely ridiculous, considering a woman wrote this book. There isn’t a single female character in this book that was introduced without reference to her body or her cleavage. Boys would never be interested in a girl with a boyish figure. There isn’t a single man in this book who is able to look at a female character without “running their eyes up and down her body” and thinking about sex. Every single older man, including teachers and happily married fathers, can’t help but want to look at and touch a high school girl. Basically every female character in this book is unable to think for themselves and exist only for men to stomp all over them (and fantasise about them). There is a chapter at the beginning of the book dedicated to the sexualisation of a school counsellor and portraying her as vapid and easily suggestible. It was so misogynistic that it was a little bit tough to get through the book. But I wanted to believe that these were the thoughts and views of a teenage boy who needed to grow to believe differently. So I persisted with the book, only to be rewarded with nothing.
There is absolutely no character development in Jesse at all. He’s a jerk at the beginning of the book and he remains one at the end. He is very manipulative and unlikable. There’s nothing redeeming about his character at all. The author tried to make him interesting by giving him a confident and successful personality but he just comes across as a total jerk who uses violence and threats to get what he wants. His terrible attitude and behaviour was attributed to the death of his mother a year ago, something that he doesn’t want to acknowledge or deal with. But this was handled terribly and was barely resolved. The author also tried to make him interesting and unique by making him a musical genius. It was mentioned multiple times, without any subtlety, that he plays the guitar and is able to play back anything he hears once without any sheet music. I thought it was a completely unnecessary aspect and you can’t make a misogynistic and boring character more interesting with something like that.
Bridget was not much better for me. Her character fell flat and Jesse put her up on such a high pedestal that I couldn’t even see her. She’s described as beautiful, smart, kind-hearted, good-natured and she has no flaws. Her character was one dimensional and there was nothing remarkable about her, despite us being told what a perfect human being she is. I also wasn’t sold on the romance at all. There was insta-love and these characters are pretty much in love with each other after spending an hour together.
I think I should stop talking about this book now because I don’t think it’s worth the time. The whole book felt like some sort of commentary about high school life from Kat Spears but it came across as very vindictive and negative. There wasn’t a positive message for me to take away at all. For me, this book endorses chauvinism, racism, discrimination, sexual objectification of women, violence, drug use, recreational sex and a whole host of other things that I don’t think is appropriate or okay, especially for young readers.