The basics: Heart of the Matter is essentially the story of two Wellesley women: Tessa and Valerie. Their story is told in alternating chapters. Tessa is the wife of a plastic surgeon (the good kind). Valerie is the mother of a young child who was burned, and Tessa's husband Nick is her doctor.
My thoughts: There were good and bad things about this novel. For fans of Giffin, Tessa is Dex's sister. It was fun to see snippets of what Dex and Rachel are up to, but if you didn't already know their story, the quick reveal would seem awkward. It's always a difficult choice to write with new and old readers in mind, and overall, it worked for me, even if it was a bit clumsy. What didn't work for me was Valerie. I didn't like her. I didn't want to root for her. I didn't feel sorry for her. In the past, Giffin has been so good at making characters likable (I thought I would hate Something Blue, but she made Darcy likable. The book is essentially about adultery and when it's okay to forgive and when it's time to worry. These are interesting themes. Giffin uses countless characters throughout the novel to make her point. Obviously, cheating, whether emotional or physical, is a big issue in a lot of relationships, but it certainly doesn't consume me.
The novel's pacing was off for me. The early chapters gave so much backstory about the character's lives; I knew about them before I knew them. Once the story picked up in the modern day, it also seemed obvious to me that Valerie and Nick were destined to cross some line, so the inevitability of it made it seem like it took forever to happen. There were also a lot of characters dealing with and reeling from adultery. It was nice that Giffin tried to take a nuanced view of adultery and provide numerous examples of its differences and idiosyncrasies, but it felt forced. Her characters are her strength. In this novel, her characters were not as memorable or likable, but her writing was still strong. Here are a few of my favorite passages that exemplify the themes of this novel:
I close my eyes, wondering whether we are ever truly blindsided by misfortune. Or, somehow, somewhere, in the form of empathy or worry or a premonition deep within ourselves, do we feel it coming? I fall asleep, not knowing the answer. Not knowing that this will be the night I will return to, after all. (Kindle location 104)
I think a shady genesis puts a greater burden on a relationship. In other words, if two people have an affair, they’d better stay together. If they do, they have this romantic “we were meant to be” story and a certain degree of exculpation for their sin; if they don’t, they are just a couple of cheaters. (Kindle location 1552)
And that we argued this morning—over nothing, really, which is the best kind of argument to have when a marriage is working, the worst when it’s not. (Kindle location 3448)This novel is Giffin's first to feature two women who were portrayed as moms first and women second, and I don't think Giffin is as successful talking about mommies. I fully admit I have little to no interest in mommy fiction. Although Heart of the Matter features many of Giffin's hallmarks, it wasn't successful for me. Perhaps the storylines of mothers who forsook all else was too much for me. Perhaps my literary palate has been spoiled by reading wonderful literary fiction lately, and I'm holding Giffin to higher standards than I did before. Regardless, I'm not sorry I read it. It moved me to tears. It made some good points, but it's not a story I loved, and it doesn't measure up to her past books.
The verdict: It's not Giffin's best. There are parts I enjoyed, but overall it felt forced.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: May 11, 2010 - order it from Amazon now
Source: I bought it for my Kindle.
Have you read it? Did you like it? Is it me or is Giffin slipping?
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