Review: Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Title: Bittersweet
Author: Sarah Ockler
Genre: young-adult
Series: N/A
Pages: 384 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: January 2012
Source: publishers via Pulse It!
Rating: 4/5

Once upon a time, Hudson knew exactly what her future looked like. Then a betrayal changed her life, and knocked her dreams to the ground. Now she’s a girl who doesn’t believe in second chances… a girl who stays under the radar by baking cupcakes at her mom’s diner and obsessing over what might have been.

So when things start looking up and she has another shot at her dreams, Hudson is equal parts hopeful and terrified. Of course, this is also the moment a cute, sweet guy walks into her life…and starts serving up some seriously mixed signals. She’s got a lot on her plate, and for a girl who’s been burned before, risking it all is easier said than done.

It’s time for Hudson to ask herself what she really wants, and how much she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. Because in a place where opportunities are fleeting, she knows this chance may very well be her last.
I just. . . loved this. While the beginning had me seeing echoes of the start of the film Stick It, it's easy and impossible not to be won over by this cute baking/hockey teenaged love story. I had fun reading it, I wanted to read it when I wasn't, and I feel comfortable - nay excited! - recommending it to others. If those are not the signs of a good book, I don't know what are. This is exactly the kind of adorable, heart-felt book centered around baking that I wanted to read last year. What I got instead was Christina Mandelski's The Sweetest Thing, and, well, to be nice let's just say it far from delivered on the promise of its title. Sports, baking, school, family - main character Hudson Avery is a well-rounded, personable, real, dimensional character and one I enjoyed reading even for more than three hundred fifty pages. Author Sarah Ockler has greatly impressed me with this, the first novel of hers I've read, and with another of hers sitting to be read in my "already-bought" TBR pile I'm eager to start Twenty Boy Summer.

Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first, nice, easy, and best of all: quick. Why quick? I have very little to complain about from this book. There's so much to love from Bittersweet: from Hudson's rounded and faceted personality to Dani's take-no-crap attitude to the delicious-sounding cupcake recipes, I either missed things I ought've been annoyed by (possible) or they just never existed (most likely). First: I found it to be a tad lengthy. I enjoy a well-told and long story, but I felt Hudson's last twenty pages or so could've used some condensing. I flew through this book and only felt that the end suffered from a need for shortening: the rest is well-developed and timed. Second: Hudson's mom, Beth, expects too much from her daughter with little to no input from the daughter. I don't mind the "pull together for the family" spiel, it's understandable and actually happening all across the country, but I did mind Beth's attitude towards Hudson. Hudson is very mature and helpful: runs a side business, babysits her brother, pays some bills, goes to school, etc., but none of that factors into her mom's decision-making. It's aggravating, especially since the book is all from Hudson's perspective. The frustration of Hudson never being heard or listened to permeates for the duration, and it was one of the few things about this book I disliked. The good news is that it doesn't happen all the time, only sporadically, so it didn't really intrude on my reading enjoyment.

Hudson herself is great. She's so not perfect I want all the authors of Mary Sues to take note. Hudson is flawed human being: complicated, confused, FUNNY (when getting kissed: "I was 92% hygienically unprepared"), strong, and most of all, real. I really liked Hudson's humor: she doesn't take herself too serious and her self-deprecating style isn't so jaded as to be worrying. She's not the prettiest, or the most popular, or even the most intelligent: she's a normal, talented girl. Actualized and vibrant, Hudson is a happy harbinger for the personalities of the rest of the characters within Bittersweet. She has dreams and desires, hopes and wishes and a real-life she feels stuck in. Basically, Hudson is a typical teen: easy to relate to, easy to root for. Let me tell you, this girl is also funny. Her voice is so authentic and real, she comes across like several awkward friends of mine - I loved the freshness and authenticity consistently present. I thought the family drama behind Hudson's story was both compelling and also real. Contrasting her individual desires for freedom and escape against family duty, Hudson's struggles through the book are mundane but universal. Sarah Ockler truly did a noteworthy job with the characterization of the people within this book. The author absolutely and repeatedly nails the emotions and feelings of so many teens with Hudson's understandable reactions and thoughts.

Another thing about this I loved: the secondary and even tertiary characters are real, and believable, rounded personalities. Even the jerk of the novel is shown to have more than one side - and not all of them bad. He's human and understandable, even if I wanted him gone long before the book ended. Dani, Hudson's best friend, is a fireball but a real friend. She calls Hudson on her shit and isn't afraid to do her own thing without her BFF. I really enjoyed the realistic nature of the friendship between the two girls; the up and down trajectory is authentic and isn't just for plotting. Ms. Ockler also pulled off a feat in YA: there was a love triangle present, however slight. I for once, wasn't alienated by it. It helps the situation that both boys have their own appeal supposedly (Team Blackthorn FTW), and that Hudson's less undecided/wishywashy and more figuring things out without being obnoxious about the attention. On a side note, I did find "Bug's" intelligence/precociousness to be a leeetle far-fetched for an 8-year-old, but hey, minor quibbles.

For all its cute romance, great characters, teenage dating and cupcake confectionery fun, Bittersweet is not without depth or emotion. Some of the curveballs Hudson and her family have to deal with will resonate with readers: the hard economy, the desires vs. duty theme Hudson explores, the broken family so common and still so problematic. Hudson's identification with Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthrone's The Scarlet Letter is a nice reminder of how Hudson - and a lot of teens - feel isolated, and alone within a group they should belong. Hudson is a special case because she is shunned by a select group - serious ice skaters - but that feeling of aloneness, of not being listened to (coughBethcough) is one a lot of teens will accept without thought.

Bittersweet is not just sweet and fun to read, it's completely evocative in tone. It's set in upper New York and Hudson is an outdoors kind of person. This is a novel that makes snow sound fun, exciting, new, full of possibilities and this is not actually true. I may live out west in Arizona, but I know snow. I live in Flagstaff, which in 2010 was the city with the most snowfall in the entire contiguous United States. At one time, we had more than Anchorage, Alaska. So yeah, I know snow and I love it for the first month it's here. Sarah Ockler, however, with her magnificent setting and through her lovely descriptive writing, has me craving a blizzard out here in Arizona. Right now. I wish there'd been one while I was reading this. This is the perfect read for a snowy day, and a cup of tea in front of the fireplace. With a cupcake, of course. So nicely done on the timing front - I say buy this one ASAP while it's still cold outside.

Bottom line: Look no further if you want a book with cute but not saccharine romance,  angst without melodrama, and a cast of varied and interesting characters. It's cute without beating the reader over the head with its own adorability. And Josh is hot.


  1. Great review -- the cover is dead adorable and sounds like it fits in exactly with the story!! The writing seems fun -- the kissing quote you shared had me sputtering with laughter! Plus, I'm always a fan of realistic heroines (god, Graveminder killed me with that one, and in a bad way!). Overall, I'm sold, and I'll be looking for this one immediately!

    1. PS: your trivia about snow -- fascinating! I had no idea Flagstaff got so much snow! That seems wrong. Especially since I'm desperate for a snow day like whoa!

    2. Ooh! Hey threaded comments! I hadn't realized blogger updated - that's awesome. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this.[ Light, flufyy, fun with emotion!

      And I saw your review on Graveminder - I want to read it but the heroine sounds like quite a trial!

      And yeah - Flagstaff is a hidden oasis for snow and cold in Arizona. I wish it would actually snow - this is the driest winter I can remember.

    3. I covet the threaded comments on your blog as they're not working on mine. Le sigh.

      I'd love to see what you think of Graveminder -- the premise is so great but the heroine was just too precious for words. It bothered other people less so I might just be too fussy!


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