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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.