"The Sweetheart," Angelina Mirabella's charming debut novel, told in the second person, reads as a sort of Letter to My Younger Self. Leonie Putzkammer, the 17-year-old heroine, says, "Compared to Cynthia, you are a Viking. Your Nordic blond hair swings behind you in a waist-length ponytail. You are obnoxiously tall." Leonie longs to be "confident, beautiful, beloved."
Her life in 1953 Philadelphia is pleasant enough. Leonie can cook a mean brisket, she can clean, and she can take care of her widower father, Franz, who works at a hat factory and likes his television. But after she wows the crowd of the dance competition show, Bob Horn's Bandstand, with a back handspring, her brushes with serendipity snowball.
The applause "is a sound with a life of its own, its own heartbeat; a sound you find yourself craving the instant it begins to subside." Four months later, Salvatore Constantini, local wrestling promoter, walks into the diner where Leonie works and invites her to Florida to join Joe Pospisil's School for Lady Grappling. Although her father doesn't approve, he doesn't try to stop her.
Her first lesson at wrestling school? Learning how to fall, which is indicative of the performance aspect. "Kayfabe" — be fake — is a mantra wrestlers live by: "Never, ever break character."
After a week of grueling training, bruises, a broken jaw and hazing from the famous Screaming Mimi Hollander, Leonie's fellow students flee, and she gets bumped up to her very first match. David "Monster" Henderson, a carpal-tunneled former wrestler, who takes publicity photos and has a stash of salacious titles on his bookshelf, dubs her Gwen Davies.
After tag-team matches with Mimi, Leonie grows weary of being a "heel" — the villain — and wants more tender affection. Inspired by Marilyn Monroe, she surprises everyone with a new risqué uniform, transforming into a "face" — a heroine.
Leonie's bouts with her persona dominate the rest of the novel: She goes from the simple Gwen Davies to the standoffish Gorgeous Gwen to the Sweetheart — a veritable sex symbol who pushes the boundaries of modesty.
She falls for Sam "The Spider" McGee, a tall, awkward wrestler who ultimately wants to settle down to a conventional life in Cleveland, but her lust for more attention — and her father's growing loneliness back home — put her in a hammerlock.
Leonie's ultimate opponent is herself. Her suppressed appetites shift, surprise and baffle even her. "The Sweetheart" is well-balanced in its humor and pathos, and though soggy in the middle — like an ill-fitting two-piece — it's self-assured, full of seamless sentences and surprising swerves of action.
Josh Cook's writing has appeared in the Iowa Review, the Millions, the Rumpus and elsewhere.