I received Heartbeat from Netgalley as a requested ARC in exchange for an honest review. Expected publication date: January 28, 2014.
Summary + Review
Heartbeat was both my first Elizabeth Scott novel and the first digital ARC I received. While I am completely grateful to Netgalley and the publishers at Harlequin Teen for hooking me up, Heartbeat was not the book for me. But: Of reviewers who’ve read it, I seem to be in the minority. Lots are showing their love already, and I can see where this book would be a wonderful fit for some readers.
In Heartbeat, the protagonist, Emma, is heartbroken over the recent death of her mom. Sounds like a pretty typical YA premise, right? Elizabeth Scott uses a fresh, painful take on this idea, though, with the circumstances of the death: Emma’s mom was pregnant at the time of her accident, and she is being kept on life support machines in order to keep the baby alive. This decision was made by Emma’s stepdad, and she cannot forgive him for neglecting her feelings in the matter. Because dealing with this unexpected loss was hard enough, but now she also feels as if she goes through the hope-denial cycle, facing this loss, every time she sees her mom at the hospital.
Her best friend, Olivia, tries to be supportive, but Emma has no one with whom to confide about her true feelings. That is, until she has a chance encounter with the school’s bad boy, Caleb. Caleb’s sister had been killed in a car accident several years before Emma’s own tragedy, and the two bond over their sadness, anger, and need to connect with someone who can understand. Can Caleb help Emma move on with her life?
So here was my main problem with Heartbeat, and I know that revealing it will make me seem heartless…BUT. How does one write a book about grief that is more than a book about grief? In other words, how can the author value the kind of negative, endless grief-spiral a person would realistically be in when faced with the death of a loved one, but avoid writing that comes across as depressing, repetitive, and mostly hopeless? Is it possible for an author to authentically represent a main character’s mourning and give the reader a sense of purpose (reading purpose, that is) and optimism?
I think the answer is yes, but it must be incredibly difficult to pull off. To me, Scott just missed the mark.
One of my favorite books from last year (although published in 2011) was Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life. I talked about it here and reviewed it here. I think it’s a good book to compare to Heartbeat because they have quite a bit in common. Both feature protagonists who are dealing with the passing of a parent. Both protagonists are angry teenage girls. Both are driven by a premise that is on the slightly more un-realistic side of realistic. (In the case of How to Save a Life, the MC’s mom decides to adopt a baby as a way to deal with the loss of her husband.) Both contain a romance, although Heartbeat leans on that a little more. But I gave 5/5 to How to Save a Life. Because, to me, Zarr crafted a book about grief that was about more than just the grief. Now, to be fair, How to Save a Life has two points of view, with the second MC focused on her pregnancy and not loss. However, Zarr successfully created a more balanced narration style with the employment of other conflicts and secondary characters. I don’t think Scott used Olivia or Anthony or even Caleb enough in this way. Olivia and Anthony seemed pretty flat. Also, Caleb’s introduction into the story was a little abrupt and unnatural. The other thing is that I just think Scott’s writing is not quite up to Zarr’s level. Even when Jill, from How to Save a Life, was in the full throes of her grief, I was captivated because it felt real but also original and not at all tedious. It was tough for me to read through Emma’s grieving process because it became a really dull and dismal task.
Anyway, I’ll stop fangirl-ing about Sara Zarr now! One other complaint I have, probably because of the English teacher in me, is Scott’s use of punctuation. Specifically the dash, and even more specifically the em dash. It was overused! For instance: “Mom would hate being trapped like she is and I can’t — won’t — forgive him for it. (Keep in mind that this quote could change by publication.) In real conversation, yes, we often interrupt one another and even interrupt our own thoughts with new ones. But this was a bit out of control. Like, on some pages I counted several uses, even within inner dialogue. A lot of ellipses, too, but you may have noticed that I have a problem with that, as well. 🙂 It was distracting to me, but maybe others won’t notice or maybe it will be edited prior to publication.
One defense of Scott’s work in Heartbeat that I want to make is that some reviewers have said Emma comes off as ‘too angry’ and, thus, annoying. I couldn’t disagree more. Emma’s anger is one of the more real elements in the book, and I think it is a totally justified feeling, given her circumstances. Every reader is entitled to his or her opinions, of course, but I think this aspect of Emma’s character was well developed.
This is a very easy read. There are a few flashbacks, but they are set off very obviously and are told briefly.
Underage drinking and a few makeout scenes are present in Heartbeat. There is some profanity, usually used to express Emma’s anger, but it is not heavy. Drug use and theft are mentioned in a negative light, but are also chalked up to the grieving process. Heartbeat would probably be appropriate for most middle school readers.
-Independent reading or student-choice book clubs
-Discussions/Debates about life support, teen boot camps, coping with grief, etc. (Discussion on life support could hit nerves with students’ religious beliefs, so teachers may want to supply structure and know their demographic.)
Book Talk possible passages: (Note: this will be updated upon the book’s publication. Because it’s an ARC, I cannot quote due to possible changes at publication.)
Web Resources: The news stories linked below were not what inspired Elizabeth Scott’s writing, but they have some pretty intriguing connections. I came across this news story recently, and it immediately made me think of Heartbeat: Texas Father Barred from Taking Pregnant Wife Off Life Support. Crazy, right (and really, really tragic)? This article could be used in conjunction with Heartbeat, especially read and discussed ahead of time. Some may also have heard about the devastating story of the thirteen-year-old girl whose family has been fighting to keep her on life support.
Readers looking for authentic emotion and main character dramatics will find it in excess in Heartbeat. However, other aspects of characterization and overall writing could have been stronger. Unique premise but a read that, for some, may be too gloomy.