Iowa City resident Lovely’s first novel is an overwrought, often excruciating exploration of the ironies unleashed by a young woman’s decision to donate her organs.
Isabel, a botanist, is riding her bike up a hill on a blustery Iowa spring day. At the crest, a gust forces her into the wrong lane, just in time to collide head-on with a pickup truck driven by Jasper, an aspiring blues guitarist and all around ne’er-do-well. As Isabel lies brain-dead in the hospital, her organs are harvested as her mother, Bernice, and husband, Alex, keep horrified vigil. In Chicago, Janet, whose myopathic heart is failing, is the designated recipient of Isabel’s heart. A year after Isabel’s death, Alex’s grief is still raw, but he’s comforted by his kinship with Bernice. He’s disturbed when Janet’s thank-you notes become outright demands for friendship. Bernice, whose closeness to Alex is threatened by a new girlfriend, welcomes chatty e-mails from Janet’s mother Lotta. Post-transplant, Janet returns to teaching troubled youth, while coping with her two boisterous children. Her workaholic lawyer husband David, who lacks caregiving genes, withdraws. Jasper, whose characterization is the most problematic in the novel, morphs from feckless screw-up—he’s underemployed and underappreciated at Best Buy—to a stalker who’s bent on forcing Alex, Bernice and Janet to acknowledge his “role” in the heart donation. Although acquitted at trial, Jasper, sole surviving witness to the accident, withheld one piece of crucial incriminating evidence—he was driving while dialing. In the sections devoted to Jasper, the writer’s contempt for him is palpable. Because he killed Isabel he’s already the obvious villain—the more daunting challenge, ducked here, was to make him an identifiably flawed human. In the absence of a plot, the action is driven largely by Alex’s ruminations, many voiced in long stretches of eloquent but repetitive speechifying.
Despite evocative prose throughout, this morality tale never achieves dramatic lift-off.