Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Heart Broke In: Dysfunctional British Wankers

You've probably never heard of British novelist James Meek. It's okay. I hadn't either until a really positive review of his new novel, The Heart Broke In, showed up in The New Yorker several months back. Then, I saw a review on Goodreads comparing Meek to Jonathan Franzen. I was sold — as you know, I love the Franzen, and I'm a sucker for a good dysfunctional family story.

The result? Just okay. The characters that inhabit Meek's only-400-page-but-probably-still-way-too-long novel certainly don't seem to like each other much. Indeed, their morals consist basically of the following: All's fair game, as long as you don't get caught. In the opening pages, we see 40-year-old Ritchie, an ex-rock-star-and-now-reality-producer embroiled in an affair with a 15-year-old girl, who was a contestant on his TV show.  The only thing that stops him from continuing the affair, his 3rd such extra-marital dalliance, is the thought that this time his wife has promised to leave him and take their two kids if she catches him again.

Meanwhile, his mid-30s scientist sister Bec has muddled through an almost misanthropic, bed-hopping love life, even as she makes a brilliant breakthrough in the cause to cure malaria. She takes up with another scientist, a dude named Alex, a socially inept man-child who used to drum for Ritchie's band, and has had a several-years crush on Bec.

But it all threatens to come crashing down when a newspaper editor named Val, who, early in the novel, Bec had agreed to marry and then decided against it, finds out about Ritchie's underage affair. He blackmails Ritchie by threatening to reveal the story unless Ritchie can bring him some dirt on his sister. Will Ritchie betray Bec to save himself?

If you don't like novels in which you don't like any of the characters, this is definitely not for you. But that, I can abide. My issue here is that the novel just seemed a bit bloated— there are too many side stories and distractions, and I was often bored with the tangents, and looking forward to getting back to the heart of the matter. Part of the point here is that it's often difficult to tell what the true motivation behind our decisions may be — even for ourselves. Is it an ingrained sense of morality? A conscience? A sense of not wanting to be publicly shamed? A staunch belief that the ends justify the means? They're interesting question to ponder, but it's sometimes hard to keep your readerly eye on these prizes.

However, if you are a sucker for soapy novels with a whole lot of bloody Britishness, you'll certainly enjoy this. And the dysfunction of Bec and Ritchie's relationship with each other and with their own relations is really entertaining. There is definitely some Franzen in this novel, but on the whole, it's a "meek" imitation.


  1. I'd had this on my list for some reason - I cant' remember where I came across it. I remember it sounded interesting, but based on your review, I might be skipping it for the time being. I have little patience for unnecessary tangents these days.

  2. Too bad you couldn't go in and slice away all of the unnecessary stuff! It sounds like it *could* have been a decent read.

    1. Yeah, no kidding - all the "unnecessary stuff" does contribute to overall themes and what not, but the novel would've been better without much of it, IMO.