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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington

Title: Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Author: Ed Tarkington
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: Jan 5, 2016

(From the cover): Welcome to Spencerville, Virginia, 1977.  Teenagers still roamed wild and free. Elementary school kids could walk to school on their own.  Daughters were safe from the clutches of filthy hippies and horny English rock stars in tight leather britches.  Sons worshipped God, loved their mothers, and feared their fathers.

Eight-year-old Rocky worships his older brother, Paul.  Sixteen and full of rebel cool, Paul spends his days cruising in his Chevy Nova blasting Neil Young, cigarette dangling from his lips, arm slung around his beautiful, troubled girlfriend.

Paul is happy to have his younger brother as his sidekick -- until the day Paul, in an act of vengeance against their father, picks up Rocky from school and nearly abandons him in the woods.  Afterward, Paul disappears.

Seven years later, Rocky is a teenager himself.  He hasn't forgotten being abandoned by his boyhood hero, but he's getting over it, with the help of the wealthy neighbors' daughter, ten years his senior, who has taken him as her lover.  Unbeknownst to both of them, their affair will set in motion a course of events that rains catastrophe on both their families.  After a mysterious double murder brings terror and suspicion to their small town, Rocky and his family must reckon with the past and find out how much forgiveness their hearts can hold. 

My thoughts: I loved this book. It was beautifully written and the setting, late 70's early 80's was portrayed perfectly.  Having been a tween/teen in those years I could easily see things through Rocky's eyes and felt a kinship towards him.  This is a story about Rocky's family and by extension, his brother's ex-girlfriend and the family who lives next door.  

We get our first look at the house next door, which has been abandoned for years, when Paul and Rocky decide to visit it late one night.  They did not know that it had been sold and Paul was shot in the leg by the new owner.  This gives some foreshadowing to the tragedy that will happen their many years in the future. 


After Paul does his vanishing act, with his girlfriend, Leigh. Rocky is left to deal with his mother (Paul's stepmother) and father on his own.  While their father always overlooked what Paul did, his stepmother was not so forgiving.  She was always quick to point out his 'bad boy' ways. His father was always looking for the next big deal, and when his neighbor convinces him to invest some money, he takes everything they have -- including the company that he has built from the ground up -- and puts it all in.  He is riding high thinking that the wealthy in town will finally have to accept him -- only the deal crashes -- and with it, his health. He is left an invalid and Rocky and his mother must learn to copy under even leaner circumstances.   

Years pass and Rocky can't believe his eyes when he sees Leigh riding on a horse at his neighbor's house. This encounter puts him in contact with one of his neighbors,  Patricia - a young lady 10 years older than him.  She is also a little messed up and quickly takes the upper hand in their relationship, becoming his lover.  She seems to be pretty bitter about life, and is not really a good influence on Rocky at all. 

Leigh is now engaged to Patricia's brother, but days before the wedding she feels the need to warn Rocky about Patricia and also to unload on him all the trauma she has been through since she ran off with Paul.  (It would probably be a good book all on its own.) This confession continues the wheel that was set in motion when Paul convinced her to leave so many years before.  

The characters in this book were wonderful.  They were all dysfunctional and yet normal enough that you could relate to them.  Set in a small town, you know enough about your neighbors to gossip, but never quite enough to draw confident conclusions.   The murder is left unsolved by the town, but we learn enough to know who did it, the question is why.  
Highly recommended!!


Winter/Spring 2016 Indies Introduce Selection
Indie Next Pick for January 2016



Excerpt (pages 184-185)
When the Old Man would draw back into the past, the dementia was almost a gift.  I came to know a sallow, shoeless child, raised on scant harvests and poor prospects through the blight of the Depression years.  I followed that boy across the Pacific to the killing fields of Bataan and Corregidor and the 39th parallel.  I saw him come home and, in a decade's time, turn a sales job taken on a whim into a thriving business that built him a new house bigger than any he'd ever set foot in as a boy.  I saw him leveled by the unfathomable loss of a child, with her Shirley Temple ringlets and a well of hope and courage in the face of certain death.  I saw him torn between the joy of a new family and the lingering remorse for the one he'd failed to save, made ever present by an impossible son he could neither control nor abandon.  I saw every victory and every failure, all up to the final, crushing blow that had left him bound to the prison of his ruined mind.  What I saw -- what I sensed but could not yet comprehend -- was the arc of a life that was not just the rise and fall of a small, forgettable man, but the story of the American Century:  its booms and busts, its catastrophes and regenerations, its fortunes built up from sweat and moxie only to be dashed by bad luck and bad choices, its false hopes and promises broken by the plain fact that we are all mere antic clay, bedeviled by the mystery that animates us.  


~I received a complimentary copy of Only Love Can Break Your Heart from Algonquin Books in exchange for my unbiased review.~

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