The Sweetheart

A Novel

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About The Book

In a “powerful tale of a person’s capacity for reinvention” (Kirkus Reviews), a teenage girl from Philadelphia leaves her old life behind to become The Sweetheart, one of America’s most infamous female wrestlers.

It’s 1953 and seventeen-year-old Leonie Putzkammer feels destined to spend the rest of her life waiting tables and living with her widowed father, Franz, in their Philadelphia row house. Until the day legendary wrestling promoter Salvatore Costantini walks into the local diner and offers her the chance to make a name for herself in the ring.

Leonie sets off for Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling. There, she transforms into Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner of legendary Screaming Mimi Hollander, and begins a romance with the soon-to-be Junior Heavyweight Champion Spider McGee. But when life as Gorgeous Gwen leaves her wanting more, she orchestrates a move that will catapult her from heel to hero: she becomes The Sweetheart, a choice that attracts the fans she desires but complicates all of her relationships—with Franz, Joe, Spider, Mimi (who becomes her fiercest competitor), and even with herself.

Asking the big questions about what it means to grow up, and stay true to yourself, The Sweetheart is daring, innovative, and powerful storytelling. “With a debut both endearing and enjoyable, this is a hands-down winner” (Star-Telegram, Dallas).

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Sweetheart includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

“An engrossing portrait of the little-known world of women’s wrestling, with questions about the nature of stardom and showing love. . . . There’s much here for book clubs to discuss.”

–Library Journal

It’s 1953, and seventeen-year-old Leonie Putzkammer’s life is at a standstill, until one day legendary wrestling promoter Salvatore Costantini walks into the local diner where Leonie works and offers her the chance of a lifetime: with her talent, she can make a name for herself in the wrestling ring.

Leonie sets off for Florida to train at Joe Pospisil’s School for Lady Grappling. There she transforms into Gorgeous Gwen Davies, tag-team partner of legendary Screaming Mimi Hollander, and she begins a romance with soon-to-be Junior Heavyweight Champion Spider McGee. When life as Gorgeous Gwen leaves her wanting, she orchestrates a move that will catapult her from heel to hero: she becomes The Sweetheart, a choice that attracts the fans she desires but complicates all of her relationships—with Franz, Joe, Spider, Mimi (who becomes her fiercest competitor), and even herself.

The Sweetheart is daring debut that describes how a single decision can ripple through the lives of everyone around us.

 

Questions and Topics For Discussion

1. Discuss the structure of The Sweetheart. Why do you think Mirabella chose to tell the bulk of the story in second personal singular? What is the effect of learning Gwen’s history in this way?

2. When Leonie arrives at training camp, she learns that her first fight will be with Screaming Mimi Hollander—“and she always wins.” What were your initial impressions of Mimi? Did your feelings about her change? If so, how and why? Discuss Mimi’s relationship with Leonie. What does Leonie mean when she describes Mimi as “the meanest bitch that ever walked the face of the earth”? Is Leonie referring to Mimi’s character in the wrestling ring or something more nuanced?

3. Upon seeing Leonie’s full name, Salvatore Costantini says, “If you do become a wrestler, first thing we’re doing is changing your name.” Why does he want to change Leonie’s name? Discuss Leonie’s different monikers. What does each of these names indicate about Leonie and how she is seen, by both herself and others?

4. Discuss the character of The Sweetheart. How does Leonie create her? Why does Leonie place so much importance in becoming a “face”? What does she regard as the drawbacks to being a “heel”? Do you agree? Discuss the reactions that Leonie receives from Joe, Mimi, and Sam when she announces herself as The Sweetheart. Are those reactions warranted?

5. When Leonie’s father asked her why she wanted to be a wrestler, she replied, “This is my best chance.” Do you think she is right? What doors open up for Leonie as a wrestler? What sacrifices must she make in order to succeed?

6. As Leonie trains, one of the hardest lessons she must learn is how to fall; before very long she will learn that “falling is more difficult than one might imagine.” Why, do you think? In what ways does her training tax her both emotionally and physically?

7. The narrator asks, “Amazing, isn’t it, how much clothes actually can make the person?” Do you agree? How is costume important in the world of wrestling? Why are the green wrestling boots so important to Gwen? Are there other instances when clothing plays a significant role in Gwen’s life?

8. When Leonie tells Sam she wants to be a champion, “same as everybody else,” he quietly says, “Not everybody. . . . I guess that’s one more way we’re different.” How else are Leonie and Sam different? Do you think they are well suited for each other?

9. From watching the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret, Leonie has gained “this understanding of secrets: they are most easily kept when they run completely counter to expectations . . . or are so obvious as to be invisible.” What secrets does Leonie hide throughout the story? Are other characters hiding anything? What revelations were most surprising to you?

10. When Leonie returns home for the first time, she doesn’t “know what to expect, . . . if anything, but at least [she] can spend a few days out of character.” Describe this visit. Do you think Leonie is still performing? Performance is an important term in The Sweetheart. Outside the wrestling ring, are there other times she’s also performing? Why do you think Leonie feels she must act a role?

11. The narrator says, “This is all anyone can ask of family: that they try their damndest to act like one.” Many of the families in The Sweetheart are unconventional. Which, for instance? What do you think constitutes a family?

12. After Gwen’s photo shoot with David Henderson, she tells him “I’m not the same girl I was half an hour ago.” What are the effects of Gwen’s photo sessions with him? What do you think of him?

13. When Gwen becomes The Sweetheart, Mimi is critical of her: “I really thought you were going to be different. . . . You were hungry. I could tell you really wanted it.” Do you think Gwen still “really wants it,” that nothing has changed? Why do you think Mimi is so dismissive of Gwen’s desire for fans? Do you, like Mimi, think Gwen misunderstands the real reward of the wrestling life? What do you think the real reward is?

14. At the beginning of The Sweetheart, the narrator describes Leonie as “a mouse inside of a tiger.” How would you describe her at the end of the novel? How has being The Sweetheart changed Leonie? Is it for the better? Were you surprised by anything you learned about The Sweetheart’s history?

15. What is Mimi’s unexpectedly generous act toward Gwen? What, if anything, has Gwen learned from her friendship with Mimi?

 

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Eleanor Henderson has praised Angelina Mirabella for reviving “the entertainment of ‘lady wrestling’ from its black-and-white age and rais[ing] it to the level or art.” To learn more about lady wrestling, watch Lipstick & Dynamite (1940), or the more recent film Glow (2012); both films are available for streaming.

2. Despite the time that Gwen spends in the South, she believes that it will “never feel like home. . . . The only exception is the food.” One of those exceptions is her beloved MoonPie, which Spider first proffers to her as a peace offering. Are there foods you, too, associate with a particular time and place in your life? Share your memories of the events these foods conjure for you.

3. Watch some clips from the quiz show I’ve Got a Secret with your book club. Was the show as you imagined it from reading Mirabella’s descriptions of it? Describe Gwen’s appearance on the show, and the crowd’s reaction when she reveals who she is.

 

 

 

About The Author

Angelina Mirabella received her Master of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Florida State University in 2003. Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Mid-American Review, and The Greensboro Review. In 2007, she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams scholar. She lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two daughters. The Sweetheart is her first novel.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 20, 2015)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476733913

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Raves and Reviews

“You would be forgiven for thinking Angelina Mirabella had herself been a star lady wrestler in the 1950s, given how authentically detailed her debut novel is. Fortunately for us, she’s a fiction writer—and a superb one—who has penned The Sweetheart, bringing all her glorious gifts of empathy and language to bear on its unforgettable heroine.”

– Teddy Wayne, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine

“Smart, funny, and poignant, Angelina Mirabella’s THE SWEETHEART puts a hammerlock on one of literature’s most important themes, the search for an identity, and makes it cry ‘Auntie!’ This is a delightfully original novel by a champ of a new writer.”

– Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

“Like Gwen Davies, its deeply loveable heroine, THE SWEETHEART is a delightful combination of beauty, brawn, and heart. Angelina Mirabella revives the entertainment of ‘lady wrestling’ from its black-and-white age and raises it to the level of art. This is a bold, agile, and breathlessly exuberant debut.”

– Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints

“Why haven’t there been more novels written about the lady wrestling circuit of the 1950s? Thank God the talented Angelina Mirabella has opened up this fascinating world for us in her mesmerizing debut novel, The Sweetheart. Its heroine—Gorgeous Gwen Davies—is the most feisty and vulnerable character you’ll ever meet. Once she leaps from the turnbuckle and takes the competition to the mat, you’ll find yourself out of your seat and cheering. THE SWEETHEART made me downright giddy.”

– Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon

"An engrossing portrait of the little-known world of women's wrestling with questions about the nature of stardom and showing love. Leonie will fascinate teens, especially girls, as she makes her own way in a male-dominated sport. There's much here for book clubs to discuss."

– Library Journal

"Debut novelist Mirabella delivers a powerful blow with her coming-of-age story set in the world of women's professional wrestling in 1953. Leonie Putzkammer is a 17-year-old who's primed to reinvent herself...The novel is bursting with colorful characters who are far more complex than the heels and faces they portray in the theater of professional wrestling. A powerful tale of a person's capacity for reinvention."

– Kirkus Reviews

“An unusual coming-of-age novel with a focus on being true to oneself.”

– Booklist

“Spunky and colorful…The Sweetheart is a smart and touching romp through the history of women’s wrestling, and it just may give you more respect and understanding for those spangly WWE Divas.”

– Bustle, "January 2015’s Best Books"

The Sweetheart is well-balanced in its humor and pathos…full of seamless sentences and surprising swerves of action.”

– Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A wonderfully straightforward coming-of-age story that’s set against a backdrop that’s anything but.”—

– goop

“[An] impressive coming-of-age novel.”

– The New York Times

“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.”

– Fort Worth Telegram

“The setting is based in historical fact—actual “lady grapplers” performed in matches that were staged much like professional wrestling is today. But this isn’t just a book about subverting stereotypes (although that’d be enough to make it a worthy read); it also examines the impact Leonie’s pursuit of fame has on those close to her.”

– The Huffington Post

“Told from an unusual retrospective second-person perspective and perfectly evoking 1950s culture, The Sweetheart is often hilarious but also filled with the wholly realistic yearnings and heartbreak of young-adult reinvention, and is peopled by familiar, sympathetic characters. Mirabella’s impressive debut offers laughter, tears, failure, redemption, striving, success and a sweetheart we can’t help but love.”

– Shelf Awareness

"Like Gwen Davies’ signature dropkicks, Mirabella gives the reader a few jolts and some well-scripted writing. If you’re an old school wrestling fan, this book will resonate. And newer fans will get a taste of what wrestling was like before it became simply glitter and cartoonish. And that’s no illusion.”

– Tampa Tribune

“Readers will find this backdrop refreshing, unique and an interesting look into the world of wrestling…Life is complicated and messy, and as Leonie learned it is impossible to play a part forever.”

– Emporia Gazette

“Leonie’s journey, including the depictions of her wrestling training and matches are written so realistically. It is almost inconceivable that Mirabella is neither a huge wrestling fan nor a fellow wrestler. Wrestling fans, both males and females, looking to read about wrestling and this incredible time in its history will be impressed and entertained.”

– SLAM! Wrestling

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… anyone who has a keen interest in wrestling and also enjoys reading fiction will certainly find it a worthwhile purchase.”

– ProWrestlingBooks.com

"Wow."

– PaperbackHeart.com

“Endearing and enjoyable . . . a hands-down winner."

– Dallas Star Telegram

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