Friday, August 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: The Sweetest Days by John Hough, Jr.

The Sweetest Days by John Hough, Jr. is one of those novels that straddles the line between contemporary and historical. A large part of the love story takes place in the early 1960s with a civil rights era setting. This is framed by the current day (or early 2000's) consequences.

There are two protagonists, Pete Hatch and his wife, Jackie. Pete was a successful journalist turned speechwriter for a rising congresswoman, now retired and writing novels. His first, a political thriller, has just been released. However, back in his high school days, he was a football player. To some extent, those high school times were his glory days. 

Pete and Jackie met in high school and can legitimately be called high school sweethearts. She was a gorgeous cheerleader, recently moved to New England from Texas. It seemed inevitable that handsome football player and sexy Texas cheerleader would be a couple. It took a little scheming, very little, on both their parts to make it happen. Both saw the “trophy” value of the other and sex played a big role. Then Jackie fell in love. Pete didn’t. He appreciated her as a girlfriend but always felt better than her, smarter than her. He felt destined for better things.

Toward the end of their senior year, on one fateful day, Pete fell in love with another girl. (She was smart, beautiful, sexy, and outspoken. But was she Pete’s soulmate, destined to be the true love of his life? Probably not. Of course, Pete was looking for the greener grass on the other side of the fence, so...) Before their relationship had a chance to develop, tragedy struck. Then, Pete left town abruptly without even saying goodbye to Jackie, leaving her to deal with the fallout. 

Jackie steeled herself to move on. But when they meet again, a decade later, they pick up where they left off and marry fairly quickly.

Now in their sixties, they have a decent marriage to all outward appearances. However, Jackie has always deferred her wishes to those of Pete, whose life choices took and still take precedence. He concluded very early that marrying her was a mistake. Throughout the marriage, he evidently still believed he could have done better. Although he never said so to her face, maybe she has sensed it. He never (I mean NEVER) ceases ogling other women, even in front of Jackie, even shortly after she has been diagnosed with probably terminal breast cancer.

Despite the diagnosis, he drags her back to their hometown to support him while he does a book-signing for his novel. He refuses to discuss any concerns she has about the death sentence she has just been handed; instead, he kindly insists she’ll beat the cancer. In any event, her own worries have to take second place to his concerns that his book signing may flop.

It’s difficult to read about the extraordinary self-centeredness of this man, but it is very cleverly written, rendering Pete in a voice that seems to have no inkling of how very wrong he is. It is appalling to think this is someone perceived to be a nice guy, while watching him treat his wife with condescension and disdain.

The signing does flop. But more importantly, a voice from the past inserts itself into the mix – a bomb dropped into the midst of their marriage. Jackie finally demands honesty from Pete. What did happen on that fateful day?

It takes the events of this long day and night to finally cause Pete to take stock of his life and his marriage, and to finally appreciate the wife that he has. This resolution is bittersweet because of how little time they have left. 

The novel is beautifully written and emotionally complex. Both characters are flawed, Pete more so than Jackie, but since Pete’s narrative is first person and Jackie’s is third person, the reader is forced into feeling some empathy for the husband, despite his horrific self-centeredness. To his credit, he is able to realize that he did love Jackie. Maybe he has to lose something to understand its value. One hopes that the couple’s final days together were the sweetest ones, even if they were bittersweet.

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