Brief summary and review, no spoilers.
This terrific novel by James Meek looks at the lives of some Londoners as we focus on our cultural obsessions with youth, fame, and love. It also shows us the importance of loyalty and honor, and the messiness and complications of family.
We start off the novel with Ritchie Shepherd, who with his wife Karin, were singers in a famous rock group. Ritchie is older (but not so wiser) and now produces a reality show featuring teen talent. Oh, and he's also having a fling with a 15 year old girl who appeared on the show, a deed that is not only illegal and immoral but would most definitely end Ritchie's marriage to Karin as well as his reputation and career.
Ritchie's sister is Bec Shepherd, who at 33 is quite a few years younger than he is. She is everything he is not - she is honorable and honest and works as a scientist trying to eradicate malaria in Tanzania. She's even infected herself with a dangerous parasite in order to further her goals. Bec had recently become engaged to a newspaper editor named Val Oatman, but she really did so because the proposal was unexpected and when she returns the ring to him, he is anything but happy.
Also in love with Bec is Alex Comrie, who used to be the drummer in Ritchie and Karin's band. That drumming was really a lark for him and later on he goes to school and becomes a brilliant gene therapist and wants to come up with a cure for cancer - similar to the aspirations of his beloved brilliant and acclaimed Uncle Harry, who in fact came up with a cure for a certain type of cancer. Uncle Harry's encourages Alex to focus on the element of gene therapy that can reverse aging for reasons that become clear as you read along.
Add into the mix Matthew, Harry's evangelical son and family, an assortment of friends and family, and a man named Colum Donobhan, who just got out of prison for killing Ritchie and Bec's heroic soldier father in Northern Ireland 25 years earlier because their father would not divulge the name of an informant even though he was tortured.
This was an amazing read for me. This book felt epic and ambitious in every way and truly delves into so many different aspects of our culture and how we deal with issues as diverse as celebrity and fame, religion and science, betrayal and vengeance, the quest for youth and relevance, and really at heart, what it means to be human. These characters all felt very real to me and you truly care about them and what happens to them.
This was also an absolute page-turner for me and I am writing this review waaaay too late because I could not put this book down. In fact I'll probably have trouble sleeping because I can't stop thinking about it. It was engaging, profound and at times very funny to boot.
Just terrific. I was a big fan of James Meek's earlier novel, The People's Act of Love: A Novel and I liked this one even more.
The Heart Broke In: A Novel is a saga in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. It examines a family, its history, its morality, its amorality, its ambitions, achievements and failures.
Ritchie Shepherd is an aging rock star, once a drummer in a record that was in the top ten. He now is producing teen reality shows but is thinking seriously of doing a documentary about his father who was murdered by Northern Irish Guerrillas. Will this redeem him or will he find a way to mess this up, too.
He has a sister named Bec who is as good and moral as Ritchie is amoral. She is a leading researcher on curing malaria and has gone so far as to inject herself with the untested virus. She spends a lot of time in Tanzania working in her laboratory. She is honest and direct. She is also beautiful but at about 30 years old is still single.
Val is the editor of a sleazy tabloid newspaper and wants to marry Bec. It's not going to happen. Alex Comrie also wants to marry Bec. He is a prestigious scientist who thinks he may have found a cure for aging but it's still in the working stages.
The murderer of Ritchie and Bec's father has recently been released from prison and has begun to write poetry. Will Ritchie try and take revenge?
All of these things come togther in this epic of a novel. It is sad, poignant, funny and current. I had a good time reading it and enjoyed the contents thoroughly. The only thing that I didn't like was the style. Other that that, this is an excellent novel.
The first chapter of James Meek's new novel gave me doubts. I really did not want to read a story about yet another "Roman Polanski," with smug self-justification of sex with minors. Boy, was I wrong.
This brilliant novel explores deep and compelling themes of love and loyalty, parenthood and loss. It delves into the science and politics of global health and academic advance. Blackmail and its ramifications are an undercurrent, and the practitioners are not always adult. Along the way the reader traverses the ridgeline between atheism and fundamentalist belief, Christianity and Islam, in vitro fertilization and sterility, in what can only be described, lamely, as a tour de force.
Meek has well-earned the five stars I've accorded the book. I'd like to add a sixth.
I know that this is an award winning author and so far, anyone reviewing this book loved it. Then obviously it must not be my "type" of book. I didn't like the characters and had trouble keeping them straight as to who was doing what to who. I found the structure of the book fragmented. The way the plot was woven together was why I call it fragmented. To my brain anyway. I find it hard to be negative to anyone willing to put the effort into writing a novel but as I had a problem everytime I picked this book up, getting back into it, I will have to be negative. This said, don't be put off by my comments please. If nothing else, read the other reviews as they seem to be much more enthralled with this novel. It just didn't work for ME.
Oh please. Not another grandiose piece of literary fiction all about self-absorbed people behaving badly. That was my thought after reading the first chapter or so of James Meek's The Heart Broke In. It didn't take long though for me to realize that this book was going to exceed my rather cynical expectations. I quickly found myself riveted to the page by a cast of characters so lovingly and thoroughly drawn that I felt like I knew them. I was charmed by the author's wit and keen observations as he introduces us to a varied collection of people joined by family, friendship and love.
Until the last 100 pages or so, this was not a plot driven book that I felt compelled to keep reading. It didn't keep me up late at night, or make me late for work just so I could find out what happened next. It was a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, marveling at the author's ability to create biting satire one moment and some true heart busting emotion the next. The humor always seemed to take me by surprise and by the end I felt sad that it was over even as I felt satisfaction at an ending that seemed to resolve quite a few issues of love, even the parasitical kind.
The Heart Broke In is a brilliant work of fiction, encompassing all the drama that you usually get from a family saga and adding enough intelligent commentary on love, relationships, celebrity culture, and moral fortitude to leave you thinking about these characters for weeks after you read the final page.
If you enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's THE CORRECTIONS, this British novel will likely appeal to you with its cast of emotionally blunted individuals. Most of them possess imaginative minds thwarted by a fatal flaw of some type of arrogance. It has that combination of rueful and smug, outspoken and dour that is similar to the American Midwest that Franzen portrayed. Moral ambiguity is the centrifuge of their everyday lives.
For example, has-been rocker of Great Britian's Lazygods, Rictchie Shepherd, married the more talented and feisty member of the band, Karin, and settled down with two kids in the country. Now, twenty years later, he produces a teen makeover show. He is attracted to self-sabotage and a sloth's life of greed and sexual depravity. Seeking to assuage his guilt, Ritchie wants to redeem himself by interviewing and possibly forgiving the prisoner turned poet ex-con guerilla soldier who killed his father. His sister, Bec, the near-altruist scientist, does not want to forgive her father's assassin.
Val Oatmen, a strident newspaper editor and Bec's ex-fiance, wants to punish people who are immoral or who have embarrassing mistakes in their past. His weapon of choice is exploitation and an amoral intimidation plan to achieve "Gotcha!"
Behaviorally, the action of the book (and characters) is tragically madcap and outrageously tender. The absurdity of a Kafka-esque social environment thrives in a tide of Weltschmerz. Most people in the story are blessed with formidable intelligence and/or shrewdness, but their world-weary knowingness and naivete clash. Jaded perceptions often underscore actions. Would you throw a family member under the bus to save your own hide from public shame and legal ramifications? Here are some characters with no backbone, some with no independent thought, mixed with ethical pioneers of progress, and peppered with visionaries who would willingly sacrifice others or themselves for the cause.
Matthew is ruled by his servitude to Christ and his Uncle Harry worships the sovereignty of science. And, snap, those two can go at it, and we see the emotional implosions this causes. The novel reads like a psychological thriller--he who has the best morals wins! Maybe.
The acerbic tone is mitigated by a few people who break through cynicism and actually love each other, and want to make a team of two and do their personal best not just for themselves, but for the world-at-large. An Aspergers-like young scientist and a donor for the malaria cause find their way to each other, meshing their dreams and smarts together. Meanwhile, what is a 40-something doing chasing a fifteen-year-old?
Humanists and sociopaths alike people this novel. Meek isn't wimpy about featuring villains authentically and robustly or pushing the envelope to the edges of human purpose and motivation. The central theme is about morality, but Meek doesn't rub our noses in it to prove an authorial point. Whether you are a cautionary tale or a noble martyr, you are not exempt from the mortal coil of pain and loss, suffering and obstinacy, and the Hail Mary hope of earthly or spiritual salvation.
The prose here is the first thing that reminded me of Franzen, a combination of frank and cheeky, with some winding, exuberantly long sentences just shy of purple, but controlled and fruit-bearing. He digresses with philosophical pathways, always bringing the reader back to the original point, or he shows us the paradox of judgment by way of demonstrating the error of statistics.
"Suppose we find out that everyone in the city who wears a red hat has gone crazy and is sabotaging the city's water supply. So we find a way to go in and put all the red-hatted citizens to sleep, and the water supply's safe. But then we find out these red-hatted saboteurs, as well as vandalizing the pipes, were the ones who were delivering bread around the city. So we've saved the city from being poisoned, but now we have to stop it starving."
Meek looks at old and new ideas from all sides, provoking the reader to arrive at unexpected conclusions about the moral environment. There's a little melodrama thrown in, but it is folded in with finesse, keeping the believability on tap and fluidly organic. This ranks on my top ten of the year, an impeccably measured howl of shame, a shrieking inside a whisper, a wolf in sheep's clothing, coming to swallow you whole with a smile.
The Heart Broke In is an astoundingly good book that focuses on two of the core questions of life: "What makes someone a good person? And when is a life truly worthwhile?"
In attempting to arrive at the answers, it takes the reader on a joyride of many of the hypocracies and peccadillos of our modern life: a frenzied media that creates instantly celebrities in all fields, only to take rapid pleasure in tearing them down...a hapless and hopeless quest for eternal life...a "moral majority" that takes distinct immoral pleasure in forcing others into its own narrow definitions of "being moral"...and the constant, pervasive presence of family dynamics in the mix.
I haven't had this much fun with an epic since Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections... which is likely a litmus test of whether you will enjoy The Heart Is Broke or not.
The book's central character are Ritchie Shepherd, one-time frontman for the famous rock group "Lazygods" and now the producer of a reality show called Teen Makeover. The only problem - as we learn in the opening pages - is that this family man is now sleeping with a shrewd 15-year-old contestant, which has the power to bring down his marriage and his professional endeavor.
His sister, Bec Shepherd, as no such problems. Single, intelligent, and beautiful to boot, she is closing in on finding a vaccine for malaria. A disgruntled lover describes her as, "an atheist prattling about love, a hedonist bragging about her good among the poor, an arrogant intellectual who thinks science has all the answers..." Bec's "goodness" is anathema for those who aspire to it, think they have it, but really don't.
Surrounding Ritchie and Bec are a bunch of other flawed and memorable characters: Alex Comrie, a gene therapist who once was the drummer in Ritchie's band, his brilliant uncle who wants to forestall impending death, the uncle's son Matt, a fundamentalist Christian who forces his family to embrace a "loving savior" while filling them with the terrors of hell if the don't, and Colum Donobhan, the Northern Irish guerrilla who executed Ritchie and Bec's father and is now giving poetry readings and latching on to his second chance at life.
This big-hearted epic - filled with shrewd and stunning writing - will make my personal list of Ten Best Books of 2012. I loved it.
on October 30, 2012
In "The Heart Broke In", James Meek manages to combine some big and serious issues into a compellingly readable and entertaining moral thriller. At the centre of the book are two siblings who are very different. Ritchie is a former rock star, now working in the world of reality television producing a game show about teenage pop bands while his younger sister, Bec, is a devoted scientist working on a cure for malaria. On the one hand it's a story of family dynamics, but it's also a thoughtful and well constructed tale of morality and judgement. Setting science against religion it asks very modern day questions about who is the guardian of morality in today's world and who, if anyone, has the right to judge others' behaviour.
That makes it sound quite deep and it does tackle some major issues, but Meek maintains a lightness of touch throughout that ensures that it is always a satisfying read and there is plenty of tension to keep the story on track.
The questions it considers are very much at the heart of modern day life, although not even Meek can have foreseen how topical his book might prove when he has his music-related television personality embroiled in a teenage sex scandal which reflects a current UK investigation into a former radio DJ. However, his Nostradamus touch deserts him as here the BBC don't go to any lengths to protect Ritchie. It is, however, this thread that kicks off the narrative and this is brave and challenging as it is initially hard to sympathize with Ritchie's plight. It is only when his sister, Bec, is introduced that the book gains its momentum.
Bec is a dedicated and good scientist who is initially dating a tabloid newspaper editor, Val. When this doesn't work out, the editor seeks personal vengeance setting up a web site, the Moral Foundation, devoted to exposing celebrity immorality through blackmail and coercion. The notion of the tabloids as guardians of morality is nicely made although of all the characters in the book, Val was the least convincing to me.
It is Bec's relationship with another scientist, a former drummer in one of Ritchie's bands, Alex, that is the bulk of the story and it is here that Meek introduces the religious aspect with Alex's cousin a devout Christian opposed to the scientific studies of Alex and his father, Alex's uncle. Meek's handling of the gene therapy scientific content is exemplary. He makes complex science simple to follow and fascinating, while ensuring that there is always a personal balance to things to keep the reader interested in the story development.
With the possible exception of Val who is less rounded than the others, all the characters, and there are many here, are well drawn and almost all are strong enough to hold a book on their own. There are times when I felt that there were just too many stories here jammed into the mix and the main plot takes a back seat for much of the book. However, each is as interesting and well depicted as the other. It's almost a case of "too much of a good thing". Certainly it could have been a tighter book, but then it would have lost some of the essential ambition that Meek shows. Part of the problem for me is that the story kicks off with Ritchie but then focuses more on Bec leaving a slight feeling of imbalance.
It's a book packed full of questions about big issues wrapped up in a number of interesting stories and plots. It's well worth reading.
Both intellectual and earthy, The Heart Broke In plunges boldly into the self-serving depths of man's depravity, yet soars unimpeded into the realm of scientific research, the systematic attack by a battalion of devoted researchers on diseases that ravage mankind. Former British rock star Ritchie Shepherd, married to his bandmate (and still productive musician) Karin, has clung to the glitter of his former stardom, betrayed by years and excess, yet oblivious to time's assault, now a self-indulgent game show host adept at infidelity, currently swimming in the dark waters of a dalliance with an underage teen. Ritchie's sister, Bec, a scientist working on a cure for malaria in Africa, could not be more different than her sibling, but it is the relationship between brother and sister that is the catalyst for the unraveling of a marriage, the revenge of a jilted suitor and the petty jealousy of a son whose moral rigidity alienates his father.
Meek manipulates the daily complications of the sibling's lives from one reality to another, from Ritchie's easily recognizable selfishness and instinct for self-preservation with Bec's more noble pursuits, where scientific research trumps, but doesn't nullify her personal life. Bec is, above all, a scientist, her break with fiancé Val Oatman, a newspaperman considered "the moral arbiter of the nation", ameliorated by a relationship with fellow scientist Alex Comrie, ironically a former member of Ritchie's band. Nephew of respected scientist Harry Comrie, Alex plays an important role in the unfolding drama, one in which an assortment of peripheral characters are caught up in the complicated evolution or revenge and scandal, no one left unscathed. Meek's genius in the melding of extremes with seamless grace, never missing a beat, the perversion of progress by the machinations of those dominated by weakness and ambition, a dangerous combination.
Meek's prose is reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's fearless exploration of male vanities; the subtleties of plot and characters deliver, at least for me, the artistic sophistication Eugenides aspired to in The Marriage Plot, but failed to deliver lacking sympathetic characters. Meek combines both elements with a smoothness that seduces readers into a deeper level of appreciation for intentions vs. human failings and the self-destructive tendencies of a culture rampant with narcissism. The question: can human survival trump the ego's thirst for gratification? Luan Gaines/2012.
THE HEART BROKE IN is a rich, multidimensional tale of such deliciously exhilarating prose, I found it addictive. It is a novel so compulsively page turning that I actually resented any interruption in my reading, such as a ringing telephone or the need to sleep or the simple obligations of every day living.
James Meek has crafted a dense, rigorously intellectual work of all encompassing empathy and imaginative lyricism that also happens to be exceptionally tender and shrewdly witty. It is a sensitive character study of many moods and emotional complexities, an innovative novel full of insights into the predicaments of the modern age...insights that are alive, funny, and a little bit threatening too.
With enough science to satisfy my inner nerd, enough philosophy to keep me thinking, enough human interest to keep me engaged, and enough contemporary social issues to keep it all relevant, THE HEART BROKE IN is an incredibly moving, well paved exploration through the messiness of modern life and the foibles of humanity.
With plotting tight and innovative, the multi-layered narrative advances uncommon stories of love and loss, honor and betrayal, truth and deception, forgiveness and vengeance, success and failure, youth and aging, birth and death. It's a wonderfully original novel, a vigorous portrait of a contemporary family confronting the unpredictable forces of nature and society in a big-hearted way.
THE HEART BROKE IN certainly has broken into my heart. This is one of the most stunning books I have read this year.