‘The Sweetheart’ delivers a punch

THE SWEETHEART. By Angelina Mirabella. Simon and Schuster. 352 pages. $25.

It is hard to know what to expect when you first pick up this novel. The book jacket pictures a tall, elegant woman sitting cross-legged on the rear deck of a bright red, mid-50s Chevy Impala convertible. Then you flip open the cover to find that the novel will take place in the black-and-white world of women’s wrestling in 1953. You’d be forgiven for doubting that meaningful characters, premise and plot could be found in such a setting. And you’d be wrong.

Angelina Mirabella’s first novel, “The Sweetheart,” is powerful and simple, yet not simplistic. As far removed as she is from that era and the gritty world of professional wrestling, Mirabella depicts both with unexpected clarity. It’s a coming-of-age story set in a time of Philco TVs with rabbit ears, Edward R. Murrow and large flash bulbs on cameras.

Leonie Putzkammer is a teenager growing up with her widower father in Philadelphia. Like many teenagers, she dreams of being someone else. She was a gymnast until she outgrew the sport and turned into a Nordic, prematurely well-endowed, athlete of almost 6 feet. She clearly is not a good match for her peer group. Her world changes one day when a wrestling promoter drops in for lunch at the diner where she works. Leonie is convinced to give wrestling a try.

At Joe Pospisil’s Florida School for Lady Grappling, she quickly learns the fundamental physical craft as well as the artificial world where everyone has a well-defined ring persona that may bear no relation to the real person. Every contender has to be a white hat or a black hat. Even though the matches are scripted (Nooo!), you still have to be tough to take the pummeling involved. So Leonie, now Gwen Davies for obvious reasons, finds out who she is, learns to change what she seems to be and to adapt to the painful lessons, both physical and social, that seem to frequent her new life.

Her struggles, discouraging failures and exhilarating successes as she grows out of adolescence make for a readable and enjoyable first novel.

Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier is a retired engineer living in Hanahan.