Friday, February 7, 2014
Review: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott
Author: Elizabeth Scott
Rating: 4 Stars
Heartbeat first came to my attention because of an influx of negative reviews. As a reader who has attempted a handful of Scott's issue novels in the past - unsuccessfully as I simply could not get past those first few depressing chapters - I've been anxious to find a novel of hers that was equal parts charming and heartfelt. Scott's work is, generally, liked which makes it difficult to sift through the praise to discover whether or not that particular novel of hers will work for me. Thus, the phrases thrown around about Heartbeat - particularly that is featured an utterly unlikable heroine - surprised me. And thrilled me. You see, if the masses love a novel, the chances practically guarantee that I will dislike it. (After all, "black sheep" is my other name!) Going by that philosophy, I took a gamble on Heartbeat: if other readers disliked it, there was an equally high probability that I wouldn't. And I was right.
Scott's latest isn't an easy novel to read. Yet, that being said, it also isn't as crushing as Living Dead Girl which makes it a good place to start with her work. It contains her tell-tale stance on issue novels, along with the inevitable weight of pain that accompanies her books, but it isn't overwhelming. Not quite. Heartbeat is, after all, a story of grief. YA suffers from no dearth of grief novels, but Scott's manages to be different from the typical take on mourning. Emma, the protagonist of our tale, visits her mother in the hospital everyday. Only, her mother is dead. All that remains is her body which is kept alive to ensure that Emma's unborn baby brother will survive. Dan, Emma's stepfather, took the decision to keep Emma's mother alive without even consulting her and, as such, Emma cannot help but cast Dan in the role of the villain. Emma's mother never had a choice in her situation and Emma, frankly, believes that her mother would have been happier if she were not being kept forcibly alive when she is, in fact, brain-dead.
While Emma is mourning her mother's death - while strangely not mourning her mother for she sees her everyday - life moves on, without her. Emma was once one of the most competitive students in her high school. Now, Emma can't find it in herself to care for anything as silly as homework, as papers, as school projects. Not when her stepfather has betrayed her, her mother is dead, and Emma is grieving. Olivia, Emma's best friend, is a pillar of support for her during this time. While Olivia's life still continues - school, crushes, assignments - she never hesitates to lend her shoulder for Emma to cry on when Emma needs it. Olivia keeps Emma grounded into reality, forcing her to keep from giving into the grief that lies inside. And Olivia is an exemplary best friend. Although she cannot understand Emma completely, she tries.
But sometimes, all Emma really wants is for someone to understand her. Enter: Caleb. Ever since his younger sister died by falling off her bike, Caleb has been the resident bad boy. From drugs and alcohol to stealing cars, Caleb is the real deal. When Emma first sees him in the hospital, her first instinct is to stay away. And then she allows herself to look at him - really look at him - and the grief she sees mirrored in his own eyes surprises her. Before long, Caleb and Emma are talking. Walking. Spending time together. Caleb and Emma's relationship is complicated, full of messy emotions. Both of them are brought together by their grief and their ability to understand one another. As Emma realizes, though, Caleb cannot heal her. Caleb has no magical words, no mysterious gifts to heal her pain. And that is okay.
As Caleb and Emma grow to like each other for who they are, outward appearances set aside, Emma's relationship with her stepfather grows increasingly volatile. And I get why readers don't like Emma. Emma is angry, bitter, sarcastic, and upset. While she is torn over her mother's death - the lack of her mother's presence in their household - she is even more angry with Dan for taking such a monumental decision without consulting her. Now, it has become Dan & The Baby vs. Emma. At least in Emma's mind. Emma doesn't make many attempts to understand her stepfather, despite the fact that he tries - time and time again - to breach the gap between them. Emma walks away from conversation, shuts down those who try to get through to her, and lashes out at every chance she gets. Obviously, her behavior isn't likable. Emma isn't likable; she isn't meant to be.
Scott - from what I presume, at any rate - set out to write a realistic character, not an idealistic one. While we, the reader, would love for Emma to just listen to Dan once or allow herself to open up to him, it isn't easy for her. Perhaps I enjoyed Heartbeat as much as I did because I understood Emma. I saw some part of myself reflected back in her. It's such a common coping mechanism to shut down, to revert into your mind and re-evaluate situations with your own bias tainting the picture. So common. And this is exactly what Emma does. It doesn't make her an admirable heroine, but it makes her an understandable one. I was able to rationalize all of Emma's actions without needing to think them through and her growth throughout the novel, though messy and difficult, was worth the struggle.
Heartbeat is a novel I know can work for a lot of readers - if only we'd get past this stigma of an "unlikable" heroine. Even beyond that, though, this novel is an honest portrayal of grief, coupled with a realistic, but very swoon-worthy, romance that heals, but doesn't necessarily cure. In other words, Scott's latest was exactly my kind of novel. Give me an angry, bitter, lashes-out-at-everyone heroine over a Bella Swan any day. Oh, and for good measure, throw in an actual bad-boy, not one of those "I-look-like-a-player" or those "I-ride-a-motorbike" or "I-am-too-sarcastic" kind of bad-boys we keep having in YA. A bad-boy who steals cars, does drugs, and sets himself on a road to redemption and love. Yes, please.