I Love... Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

I Love... Bittersweet by Sarah Ockler

A few weeks after I had joined Goodreads last December, Sarah began evangelizing some book that everyone else described as being about cupcakes by some author named Sarah Ockler that I had never heard of.

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I thought, 

Eh… She probably just likes this author because they have the same first name. Whatevs. I’ll get to reading it eventually.

(This was before CEFS, before Sarah and I realized that we are SSBDs, and therefore before I automatically began reading anything she recommended the nanosecond she recommended it.)

Then Maggie’s status updates as she read Bittersweet started invading my feed. First came a gif from one of my favorite movies ever, The Cutting Edge.

“Eh?” I thought, my interest thoroughly piqued, “Figure skating and hockey? Methinks I need to read this sooner rather than later.”

But at the time, I was in the midst of reading the Tomorrow, When the War Began series, as well as the Ruby Oliver quartet. This cupcake/figure skating/hockey book was just going to have to wait.

Maggie’s next status update was from the 2nd installment of one of my all-time favorite movie franchises, the incomparable Mighty Ducks.

“Eh!” I declared, “I will read this as soon as I’m done with Ruby and Ellie!”

10 minutes later…

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“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH!!!!!!!” I squealed “A cupcake/figure skating/hockey/winter book set in my hometown! I must read this NOW!”

Obviously, I began reading Bittersweet immediately.

Upon finishing, I awarded Bittersweet the highest FNL character rating that can possibly be bestowed, the “Tami and Eric” double-whammy.

Months later, I stand by that rating. To this day, it is the only book that has received that coveted rating, even with multiple people joining in on the FNL character rating fun here at CEFS.

And though it is still summer and my air-conditioner is roaring, football season will soon be upon us. For me, that means Sunday mornings gathered in a bar in downtown Portland with other Western New York expats. Through the fall and Portland’s oddly warm and rainy winters, we cheer on our hometown Buffalo Bills, devour chicken wings drenched in buffalo sauce with our morning coffee (don’t try this at home, folks), chuckle about people who refuse to drive in the snow, and reminisce about that place where we’re from and why we left.

In preparation for that time, I decided to revisit the book that makes me feel as surrounded by my hometown as I do on those Sunday mornings, and share with all of you…

Why I ♥ Bittersweet.

The attention to regional accuracy. Not having known Sarah Ockler’s background when I began reading, I approached Bittersweet with a bit of trepidation. Was she an author who could actually do my hometown justice? Or was she just one of those authors who thought,

I want to write a book with snow! I know! I’ll set it in Buffalo, that super snowy wannabe city in upstate New York! All I need to do is mention the sports teams once or twice and I’ll be GOLDEN!

Thankfully, my fears were assuaged within the first few pages when the region was appropriately referred to as Western New York. Though I didn’t live in what is known as the Southtowns where the book takes place (and where Sarah Ockler grew up), I could recognize everything Sarah Ockler described. The abandoned factories from the steel bust that cemented Buffalo’s status as a Rust Belt city, the shore of Lake Erie, where you can see broad expanse of Canada on the other side, McKinley Mall, which I’m frankly surprised is still in operation, and…

The food. This book makes me ravenously hungry in an extremely frustrating manner. And I’m not talking about the cupcake descriptions that preface every chapter. I’m talking about the references to food that only a Western New Yorker can appreciate and can’t be found anywhere else. Like extra-hot chicken finger subs that leave a hot orange mess of buffalo sauce and bleu cheese dressing dribbling down your chin with every delicious bite, interspersed with the super-sweet tang of Loganberry juice. THAT kind of food.

The main character, Hudson Avery, drives a stick-shift! Suck it, automatic transmissions! Stick-shift forever!

The figure skating. Hudson is a former champion figure skater who decides to lace ‘em up again in an attempt to win a huge scholarship. While I was very, very far from ever being a champion, I used to figure skate, and it was the only activity in which I ever showed any sort of athletic ability. Sarah Ockler’s descriptions of the sound of skate blades hitting the smooth ice and Hudson retraining her body to jump and spin took me back a couple decades (ACK! DecadeS!!!!). I recalled walking into an ice rink that was ironically warmer than the frigid winter air outside, inhaling the aroma of a freshly-zambonied ice surface (and rank stench of hockey players just getting out of practice), and the feeling of soaring into the air while attempting a jump before (usually) splattering on my ass. (It was all worth it on those rare occasions when I actually landed properly, gliding backwards on one foot.)

The wintertime setting. I miss the snow. I miss reeling from the brightness when the sun would appear after a snowstorm and the shimmering layer of white in our backyard would reflect the light. I miss the hopefulness that would rise up when I woke up in the morning thinking that the plows may not have been able to clear the streets in time for the school buses to get through (which they usually did because Buffalo’s Department of Snow Plowing or whatever it’s called is insanely efficient), and the paradox of how the sharp cold of a thick lake-effect snowflake landing on my tongue only emphasized my own warmth. Living in Portland, I usually just get foggy glasses and lukewarm raindrops that somehow manage to shimmy behind my glasses and pelt me directly in the eyeball. But in Buffalo, as Hudson says, “…when the wind rushes up to kiss me, I let it. I lick my lips and welcome it in, because the frigid bite reminds me that inside, I’m warm and alive. That inside, my heart still beats for something.”

The humor. How can I not love a book with the line,

…some people politely encourage their tone-deaf friends to sing. Some people even convince them to go on live television and audition for national competitions. But me? I am not that friend.

Yeah. I’m not that friend either.

FNL reference! ‘Nuff said.

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The pitch-perfect capture of the frustrations of working food service, encapsulated by Hudson thinking,

Speaking of tips, here’s a hot one, Cowboy: Don’t piss off the girl responsible for serving your food. A lot can happen on that long, lonely stretch of road from the kitchen to your cozy little booth by the window. Just saying.

EVERYONE who has ever worked in food service has thought that at some point.

But more than anything else, I ♥ Bittersweet because this book truly understands me in a way that no other ever has. Hudson’s struggles with her life, her choices, and her future, in so many ways mirror my own, and, conveniently, those of the Friday Night Lights characters.

There’s home, that place where you’re from, and whether you stay or go, will always tug at your heart.

There’s family, who, regardless of financial circumstances, has particular expectations of you.

There are friends, who are there for you, but don’t always understand you.

And then there’s you, having to figure out if home is a place worth staying, if family loyalty is worth more than the limits it can impose, and if friendship can withstand the tumult of diverging choices.

Is staying put worth feeling stifled? After all,

You get used to it. According to the crazy, bug-eating guys on those survival shows, human beings are the most adaptable creatures on earth—we can get used to just about anything.

Keeping in mind that,

Whenever you make a choice, something or someone becomes the unchosen, and that path vanishes forever, unexplored…

Does choosing within the boundaries of family expectations mean abandoning your own?

And will you let the choices you’ve already made define the rest of your future? Don’t forget that,

When you’re out here alone, contemplating all the things you didn’t do and the person you didn’t become … if you think about it too long—if you stand here and consider the great bleakness of it all—a hush seeps into the gray space, and the wind will hollow out your bones, and the purest kind of loneliness comes up from the inside to swallow you like an avalanche.

I love Bittersweet for the same reasons that I love Nina LaCour’s The Disenchantments - because I identify with that inner struggle. I did as a teenager, and I still do as an adult. I agonize over the potential ripple effect of my choices, and shake my fist at the responsibilities being a married grownup entails.

Finally, I love Bittersweet because it will forever remind me of,

All the little quirks that make even the most barren, frigid places beautiful, that make a tiny gray dot on the map the one place you’ll always call home, no matter where your glamorous, boring, adventurous, average, ridiculous, impossible, epic, romantic, bacon-infused life leads you.

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