By Brent Hartinger
We're on the home stretch to summer, so here's a book about summer. More specifically, how fifteen year old Dave, Curtis, and Spencer work all summer so that they don't have to get jobs. I've read and enjoyed many of Brent Hartinger's previous books, but the first two chapters had me wary. First I had to get over the premise - their dads want them to work, they don't want to. Dave and friends act like at fifteen its optional to work in the summer, but at sixteen it's required. (Yes, once you start working you will be expected to keep it up, but there's no set date to start.) It just weirded me out how much these upper middle class kids considered summer jobs necessary even beyond what their parents thought about it. My friends and I lived in households with less income and didn't feel the pressure as much as these kids. Plenty of sixteen year olds, seventeen year olds, and so on don't get summer jobs.
Then, the second chapter is their first plan to get out of working: they'll sell their valuable personal belongings and use the money to fake an income. The flaw they don't acknowledge: they'd get to spend the rest of the summer palling around without possessions. After the sale they realize there's no longer any comfort in their hideaway, but before it's oddly a non-issue.
After that point their plans to get rich quick became more surreal and the book became more enjoyable as it detached from reality. For those who hate plots fueled by coincidence, PROJECT SWEET LIFE is not the book to pick up. For me, the device worked. The outlandishness and neatness kept me from picking too much at the premise.
Hartinger also uses the city's geography to good effect. I enjoyed the note at the end about the actual history of Tacoma as I was wondering what was real and what was made up. He weaved it in well, so that I didn't feel lost even though I've never been anywhere near Tacoma or to a city with similar infrastructure.
I enjoyed watching things fall together, as what seemed to be one-shot episodes pulled together into a cohesive whole. Dave, Curtis, and Victor all had fun personalities and it was interesting to see what each of them proposed as a way to earn money. (My favorite was using math for a jelly beans in a jar contest - I did that as a kid and won a couple of times, for a much smaller prize.) There are two love interests for Curtis and Victor, Haleigh and Lani, but they don't show up enough for actual relationships to be developed or for their characters to be explored. The most interesting side character is the Chinese restaurant waitress. I wish I knew where she got her information.
Overall, PROJECT SWEET LIFE was a fun book for summer. The contents may inspire you to go outside and do something with friends rather than stay in and read. (Not that you can't read with friends. This is especially fun if you go to a store and sit together, reading the same book for the first time.) It is available now from HarperTeen, as are Hartinger's previous books, including THE LAST CHANCE TEXACO and the oft-banned GEOGRAPHY CLUB. You can find out more at Hartinger's website, el jay and MySpace. He also runs The Torch Online.