I do not consider myself a physically strong person. I have the upper arm strength of a third grader. Unfortunately, I do not have the body proportions of a third grader. The last time I tried to do a pull-up, it felt like my armpits were being shredded like cheesecloth. So defending myself from a physical attack—let alone initiating one—isn't something I spend much time thinking about. I've already accepted that if the zombie apocalypse happens, the best I can hope for is a swift demise.
Maybe the pleasure of vicarious living was the reason I enjoyed The Sweetheart as much as I did. I certainly couldn't relate to the protagonist, Leonie Putzkammer, in any meaningful way. Leonie, at almost 6 feet tall with lustrous blonde hair and curves that won't quit, is recognized in 1953 at the age of 17 as a perfect candidate for professional female wrestling. After demonstrating her tumbling ability right there in the middle of the Philadelphia diner where she waits tables, Leonie is swept up into a brand-new life: she becomes Gorgeous Gwen Davies, eventually one of the most notorious female wrestlers in the business.
Leonie quickly finds that the life of a professional wrestler isn't always glamorous. She gets roped into playing the part of a “heel,” equivalent to the villain in a vaudeville act. Her job is to make the crowds hate her—and they do, even if she wins, especially if she wins. Relations among the other wrestlers are tense on the road, particularly with her partner, Screaming Mimi Hollander, a veteran of the ring. Plus, sporting the body-baring suits the act requires demands a certain level of daring in her straitlaced era. Leonie loves the attention, but she also finds herself crumbling under the strain of it.
Leonie's adventures make for a fun, rollicking read, but Mirabella injects an unexpected dose of ethical ambiguity that elevates The Sweetheart above the level of frothy 1950s nostalgia. Leonie is far from a perfect angel, despite her golden appearance. She makes some questionable choices both in and out of the ring, and ends up suffering the consequences. She's likable without being one-dimensional. Sometimes it's cathartic to encounter a character floundering through life, making decisions on a whim and reaping regret.
But I will say, as a person who couldn't execute a roundhouse kick without falling on her face, it's also really fun to watch Leonie kick ass.