Wrestling-based novels do not have a great reputation and those involving female characters and an element of romance are normally something for reviewers to fear (particularly in the self-publishing realm.) Thankfully The Sweetheart, professionally published by Simon & Schuster, is a strong exception to that pattern.
It’s the tale of Leonie Putzkammer, better known as 1950s female pro wrestler Gwen Davies. Without giving too much of the plot away, she’s discovered, trained, works as a heel, then makes a key career decision that affects both her professional and personal life.
The Sweetheart pulls off that rare task of being an engaging novel in its own right that will appeal to a general audience, but being credible for pro wrestling fans, with the wrestling scenes an integral part of the storyline and themes rather than merely being a backdrop.
Author Angelina Mirabella has clearly researched the subject does a great job of capturing some of the little-known nuances of the real wrestling business such as the genuine physical suffering and the potentially psyche-destroying way in which “opponents” are both working together for the show and competing for promotional positioning.
One particularly impressive element is the way Mirabella includes details of genuine wrestlers, promotions and events of the era to add credibility, but skilfully controls the plot to avoid Davies interacting directly with them.
The only two gripes I had with the book are both a matter of taste, and both became far less problematic as the book rolls on. The first issue, which is very much nitpicking, is that in the earlier chapters the use of cultural references of the time is overdone and feels like an author trying to make the most of research; this is a matter of degree and certainly doesn’t spoil the reading experience.
Secondly, the story includes two matches which are shoots. It would be an exaggeration to say such a thing is impossible (indeed, the second bout is directly linked to the genuine Mildred Burke-June Byers contest) but with the first bout there’s not quite enough detail for my liking about how the in-ring action would dramatically differ from a standard performance, not enough emphasis on how such a match would be a major event to those inside the industry. It also comes across as a little stretched that this is a tag bout, something that seems even more incompatible with a genuine match (although such as thing has happened in more recent years with independent shoot-wrestling promoters.)
Also worthy of note is that the book is written in the second person (meaning both Gwen and in turn the reader are addressed directly as “you”), a rare literary device. I’m not sure if it has the presumably-intended effect of making the reader identify more with the subject of the book, though it’s possible that my being male may be a mental block to this. However, I found it surprising how quickly what could have been a distracting device became something I barely noticed. I’m also unsure if the reader is meant to be aware of exactly who is supposed to be delivering the narrative; for me that point was clarified at the end of the book and came as an intriguing revelation, but other readers may realise what’s happening throughout.
While it might be a stretch to say every wrestling fan needs to read The Sweetheart, anyone who has a keen interest in wrestling and also enjoys reading fiction will certainly find it a worthwhile purchase.
Thanks to Angelina Mirabella for supplying a review copy.