I had a love/hate relationship with Chelsea Cain’s last book, Heartsick (review). I loved the book and I hated what this said about myself. With a self-destructive detective, gruesome torture scenes, and a psychologically stunning love affair, Cain had me flipping pages and growing disgusted with my fascination. It was a book I could not recommend highly enough while I warned a lot of people away from it. After finishing Heartsick, I immediately went out and purchased a copy of its sequel, Sweetheart.
I brought it home and buried it under happier books. It stayed there for two weeks. I was dying to read the novel, but the inside flap of the jacket had a bit of a spoiler in it. Gretchen Lowell breaks out of prison in this book. Cain sets her free. I couldn’t bear to think about it. I wanted to read it and not read it. It turns out that this worry was only partly justified. Gretchen Lowell does indeed get loosed on the world in Sweetheart. When it happens, there is an unbelievable feeling of dread that washes over the reader. This moment alone makes the book worth reading, and the chill of dread lasts for several chapters. But eventually you realize something paradoxical: Gretchen Lowell is scarier in her potential than she is her actual deeds.
A friend of mine explained why this was: the power of Heartsick does not come solely out of its torture scenes; it comes from a combination of those physical assaults with the emotional bond that forms afterward. This dichotomy of pain and infatuation is nauseating. The tension, then, comes from Gretchen’s ability to torture long after she has been thrown in prison. For the reader, there is a sense that Archie will be on the slab forever, taking in drain cleaner from an eye-dropper. This means that Gretchen’s escape from prison is also Archie’s escape from his psychological captor. Gretchen on the loose, as a physical threat, does not have the staying power one would assume.
Here is a problem that Archie can tackle, something his habits and training have him prepared for. It is a new and exciting phase of their relationship and it makes this book very different from the first. This isn’t entirely a bad thing. Heartsick was a wonderful book, but there was no way to repeat it without it getting stale. Cain does the right thing in altering the source of tension and allowing her characters to grow. For those of us sensitive to nostalgia it is a hard pill to swallow, but once it goes down we start to feel better. The ending of Sweetheart leaves little doubt that a third Gretchen/Archie books is forthcoming. When it gets here it will make Sweetheart seem even more like a bridge novel, a book that moved Gretchen outside in preparation for something bigger. Part of this feeling comes from the incompleteness of the story, but there is also the length of the novel. With 65 chapters shoehorned into 300 pages, large font, and generous spacing there is a ton of white space in the book.
The book flies by with a mixture of plot and padding. For those of you that morbidly want more entertainment via suffering, the length of the book may be a letdown. If all of this seems harsh, keep in mind that this is the sequel to one of my favorite reads last year. Almost nothing was going to live up to my expectations. Despite these disappointments, I enjoyed the book and can’t imagine having not read it. I’m a huge fan of Archie’s and Susan’s and I have a sick attraction to Gretchen. There is no way you could keep me from finding out what happens to them next. If I had it to do over again, however, I would probably choose to wait until the next book is close to publication before I picked up the paperback of Sweetheart. Heartsick had an ending that was easier to move on with, and this is a book that can be read in an afternoon. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that I paid for 300 pages and only got 150. Buying a paperback for a third the cost probably would have allowed me to ignore this.