Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a heartwarming novel about love, relationships and lady wrestling debuts. Yep, Angelina Mirabella’s The Sweetheart is about the unforgettable lady wrestling circuit in the 1950s, and it’s a hands-down winner.
If you’re like me, you probably never, ever even knew that women wrestled professionally in the ’50s. Well, they did, but to no one’s surprise, it was for less money than the men, in smaller venues and with a lot more to lose. It was actually illegal in some states.
The titular Sweetheart is 17-year-old Leonie Putzkammer. Sounds fierce, right? Leonie is far from it when she’s discovered waiting tables in a Philadelphia diner by a legendary wrestling promoter. He makes this gangly, vulnerable teen flip, literally, with an offer she can’t refuse: leave her lonely life with her widowed father, one friend and no boyfriend to move to Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling.
Once Leonie hits the road, the only thing fake is the wrestling. She is faced with real fear, tough opponents and even tougher choices. She is transformed into The Sweetheart, Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner to Screaming Mimi Hollander and girlfriend of junior champion Spider McGee.
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A wallflower most of her life and timid about her tall frame and ample curves, Leonie must step out of her shell and become this character. She struggles to find confidence and even more with her persona. All she wants is love. No one has ever outwardly showed her affection or admiration. Sadly, she craves it from everyone, but can’t seem to find the right way to get it.
When she has to make decisions, she usually does what’s expected of her, and sometimes this makes the Sweetheart a heel. Leonie will do just about anything for love, but following her heart is tougher than some of the wrestling hits she takes every night in the ring.
There are so many times we read what’s she’s thinking, only to see her do the exact opposite. Despite her body’s strength, her conscience is weak.
Gorgeous Gwen’s choices usually make her fans love her but complicate Leonie’s relationships. The people who surround Leonie are the best part of the book. While she is center stage, her support group is the real winner. Best of all is Mimi, her teacher, surrogate mother and fiercest competitor. Mimi’s the one who continued to surprise throughout the book.
Less complicated, but equally as lovable, are all of the other professional wrestlers that surround Leonie.
Spider McGee, though born into the world of wrestling, wants nothing more than to get out. Lacey Bordeaux, aka Fury Hysteria, has had it all but had to give it up because lady wrestlers haven’t figured out a way to be a champion in the ring and at home. (Aren’t wrestling names awesome?) Surprisingly, it’s a fascinating, genuine and provocative world to peek into.
The Sweetheart is also full of fun ’50s references to black-and-white TV shows like I’ve Got a Secret, obsessive teen fan clubs, Marilyn Monroe and 45s on the turntable. Books like The Price of Salt are passed in a brown paper bag. Everyone smokes, and no one wears a seat belt.
Although the odds never seem to be in Leonie’s favor, she wins some. And when she loses some, that’s when she becomes our sweetheart. With a debut both endearing and enjoyable, Mirabella has a real star in The Sweetheart.
by Angelina Mirabella
Simon & Schuster, $25