Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

Project Sweet Life

by Brent Hartinger

Project Sweet Life

by Brent Hartinger

Reviewed September 1, 2009.
HarperTeen, 2009. 282 pages.
Starred Review
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #2 Other Teen Fiction

I first heard about Project Sweet Life after a girl patron at Herndon Fortnightly Library won the monthly prize drawing in Kay Cassidy's Great Scavenger Hunt Contest. For registering the winner's entries, the library won a choice of five books, and as soon as I read the description of this book, I not only chose it for the library, I also bought a copy to give to my son for his fifteenth birthday, which is in the middle of the summer. It seemed completely appropriate.

Dave and his two friends Victor and Curtis believe that the summer you are fifteen should be the year when a summer job is optional.

You can get one if you really want one, but it isn't required. And I really, really didn't want one.

He explains his philosophy:

I certainly understand that some people, even some fifteen-year-olds, need to work. They're saving for college, or they have to help pay bills around the house. For them, a summer job at fifteen isn't optional. But my dad makes a good living as a land surveyor. He wears silk ties! And my mom is stay-at-home. We aren't poor.

The adults won't tell you this, but I absolutely knew it in my bones to be true: Once you take that first summer job, once you start working, you're then expected to keep working. For the rest of your life! Once you start, you can't stop, ever -- not until you retire or you die.

Sure, I knew I'd have to take a job next summer. But now, I had two uninterrupted months of absolute freedom ahead of me -- two summer months of living life completely on my own terms. I knew they were probably my last two months of freedom for the next fifty years.

Unfortunately, Dave's dad has been discussing the situation with his own friends, the fathers of Victor and Curtis. On the first night of summer vacation, all three dads inform their sons that there will be no more allowance, and they need to get a summer job.

When the three friends meet that night after dinner, they discuss the situation and the incredible unfairness of it all. That's when, together, they come up with the scheme for Project Sweet Life: Instead of slaving away at a minimum wage job all summer, they will fake the job, find a quicker way to make the same amount of money, and then loaf off all summer.

Brent Hartinger does a wonderful job showing us their schemes, which actually work -- and then inevitably have bad luck snatch all the money out of their grasp. It adds up to a hilarious coming-of-age friends-forever adventure that is tremendous fun to read.

I got a piece of writing advice long ago that I have seen work many times: Never let your characters solve their problems by coincidence, or no one will believe it. Instead, have your characters get into trouble because of coincidence, and everyone will think how true to life that is.

In the case of this book, it seemed slightly unlikely that their schemes would work out so well, but then when bad luck snatched the profits from their grasp, it suddenly seemed true to life and also very funny. I think the unlikelihood of their success in the first place made their downfall that much funnier, though we definitely felt sorry for them. As the summer wears on and their bank balance gets lower, their plans get more and more desperate.

For the record, my now fifteen-year-old son did not have a job this summer. But I'm not worried that this book will give him the wrong idea. Although the book does not hold up the boys' behavior as a good example, and does show that their choice ended up in more work than a job would have, it also has some great things to say about friendship and doing what's right.

This book had me laughing out loud as I read it, and even as I'm writing the review, I can't stop smiling. Most of all, it's simply tremendous fun.