Angelina Mirabella’s aptly- titled historical ficiton novel The Sweetheart, set around the era of the fifties in America, is an exciting, identity-confused perspective of a female wrestler, in a time in America which many attribute as being one of the most idyllic eras in our history. When you read the first few pages or so with the novel’s premise of “female wrestler” at the forefront of your mind, you wonder, incredulously, just how the fairly sedate, domestic tone of the story’s novel could translate to a psychologically-intensive novel, steeped in young-adult identity troubles, that comes right on the ‘heels’ of the story’s tame beginning sequence. The novel begins first with our main character, with the rather unpronounceable name “Leonie Putzkammer,” as a much older woman, who receives a letter, bearing an invitation to a reunion of sorts with other highly-esteemed wrestlers from right around the time that Leonine reportedly wrestled at the time.
Once her mind recalls her stage pseudonym as “Gorgeous Gwen Davies” when she was a young female wrestler, the novel departs from the present and shuffles us off into the past history of this character, retold with somewhat awkward, though fairly seamless second-person voice. The year is 1953, and Leonie Putzkammer is an abnormally tall, insecure seventeen year old girl, whose feelings of estrangement with the world around her, provide a very easy, relatable narrative voice for readers to slip readily into and begin feeling a strong emotional pull to the story. Yes, the second person voice of “you,” acting as the main subject can be initially off-putting, but I think the writer Angelina Mirabella does an effective job, subtly providing good artistic reasons for utilizing a perspective that is seldom used in fiction writing. It is certainly not an active narrative voice, but at the same time, it really makes the later development of the character’s identity crisis feel intensely real, without obstructing the engrossing pace of the novel. Angelina Mirabella’s prose is so measured, in the way that it can subtly carry all these psychological layers, packed deep in each sentences sub-textual layers, that the reader gathers quite readily that the narrator feels effectively split, in terms of her identity.
From the outset of the main portion of the novel, the narrator elaborates about the crux of the main character’s psychological conflict:
“You want to be somebody else. You don’t know who this person might be; all you know is that she should be confident,beautiful, beloved. This isn’t what makes your story special-every lonely, akward teenage girl in the history of American adolescence has wanted to be someone else.” (p. 7, The Sweetheart)
At first, the primary person that Leonine identifies with being seems indistinguishable from others, in terms of the mundane quality of her main personality. Later, she is given the chance to adopt a new persona, one fabricated by the marketing geniuses behind the wrestling scene. Yet, her persona becomes something that she almost becomes subsumed by completely throughout the course of the novel, making the reader suddenly lose all conscious thought of the “you” voice, as we succumb to the new-found reality of the more assertive, sexually-empowered, flashier, spunkier personality exuded by the newly-manifested personality of “Gorgeous Gwen Davies.
Fraught with moments of unease, indecision, second-thoughts, sometimes the real insecure voice of Leonie emerges in the story, creating some very well placed internal drama in the story, yet all without overwhelming the main story. The main story concerns the ascent of Gorgeous Gwen Davies, and the human-relationship drama that predictably accompanies this ascent, and the occasionally corrosive feelings that come between Leonine/Gwen, and the men of her lives, that wish to intervene as a buffer, to her self-improvement, and arc of strong development as a self-assured woman, in an era where women were often thought to be domestic trappings, in the homestead of the husband, who should be self-effacing and insecure, in how they are perceived by their more overdomineering male counterparts.
Ironically, the venue of the wrestling pantomime may ostensibly appear empowering to Leonine/Gwen, yet it is all apart of an illusion, manufactured by men, purely for the sake of male consumption. So the limiting reality around her,in terms of her shaky relationship with her father, the turbulent relationship she has with her boyfriend, a wrestler himself Sam/Spider Mcgee. Throughout the book, her relationship with Sam alters, as her own self, fraught with insecurity, becomes temporarily emboldened by the acceptance of her new identity. Of course, when this identity begins moving beyond the frame of the visible setting of the wresting world, she begins to face the eventual relational strife that comes about, where she tries to transcend the boundaries of the patriarchal world. The 1950s were only ever palatable for women, who remained complacent and subservient to the superior masculine authority figures in their lives. Other women, more along the lines of Leonine, desperately seek more power, fame in their lives, taking up a more rebellious stance that tends to disconcert those around them that conform better to the status quo.
All the money that Leonine would have earned for herself is mostly redirected to the bank accounts of those in charge of her wrestling career. It is insinuated in the novel that many male wrestlers tend to earn more money, and this is just another shield contrived by the patriarchal world to defend against obstreperous, delusional women that get the self-defeating thought in their head that they can somehow earn their success, power by themselves. The novel, as a result, is a deep meditation on these things, and this conflict comes through fairly subtly, allowing those that might prefer the drama of Leonine ascending the ladder of the female wrestling world to enjoy it without being pummeled over the head with too much deep psychoanalysis.
The novel does sometimes have its inevitable flaws, in the way some of sections tend to move more at a snail’space, and some of the minor characters are sometimes not as interesting, or remarkable as the key players in this novel. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed this, as I normally do with many of the books I receive from Simon and Schuster (and no I am not paid to say this, I honestly feel this way about many of the books I receive from them). It is a lucidly-written, effective, subtly told psychological story of a woman with a split-personality of sorts, who encounters the many consequent drama and pitfalls that come with adopting an unconventional, manufactured identity in the world of female professional wrestling. It is an interesting portrait of a dynamic/rebellious woman , as well as a fast-paced drama that will greatly serve to entertain readers, looking for something a bit more “subversive” and nuanced, when it comes to depicting a story in the supposed halcyon era of the “50’s” in American History.