Once upon a time, I knew exactly what I was going to get when I picked up a book by Elizabeth Scott. Her first three books were solidly lovely coming-of-age romances. Then came Living Dead Girl, which left me feeling so traumatized five years ago that just seeing it on my bookshelf still makes me shudder*. After that came Something, Maybe, which, despite a MADDENINGLY INACCURATE cover, was a fabulously adorable return to the coming-of-age romance. She’s since dealt with grief, PTSD, suicide bombing and amnesia.
When I picked up her new book, I assumed that she’d returned, yet again, to her old stomping grounds. (Can you blame me? Just look at that cover art! The silhouettes leaning in to each other even MAKE A HEART, for crying out loud!) But Heartbeat is a bit more complicated than that, and ultimately, this makes it all the more satisfying.
Emma’s mother died a month ago.
Emma still visits her in the hospital every day, though. Holds her hand, talks to her and tries her damnedest to ignore the baby that’s still growing inside her mother’s body. She tells her mother about her day at school, about her grades, about her friends…but pretty much every word that comes out of her mouth is a lie. She’s stopped doing schoolwork at all, and when she’s at home, she’s locked in her room, avoiding all contact with her once-beloved-now-despised stepfather, the man who only sees Emma’s mother as a baby receptacle.
And then she makes eye contact with Caleb Harrison, class druggie and car thief—If Anthony is at the ass end of the smart part of the school, Caleb Harrison is the ass end of the stupid part.—and she sees something that surprises her, something that she hasn’t seen on any other face: understanding.
Though I’ve finally learned to assume nothing about her choice of topic, I can count on Scott’s writing to always be solid: When I pick up one of her books, I’ve come to expect the dialogue, the characterization and the relationships between the characters to ring true. In that regard, Heartbeat performs admirably. Here’s where it goes above and beyond:
Emma’s grief and rage. Emma knows her mother is dead—she repeats that fact over and over again, both to herself and to other people—but in going to sit with her body in the ICU every day, surrounded by beeping monitors, ventilators and who-all knows what else, it’s nearly impossible to reconcile that flat fact with what she sees. So she has to relearn the news about her mother’s death every single day. She can’t let go, and she can’t grieve. It’s an astoundingly brutally hard situation, and Scott makes us feel every aspect of it. Emma isn’t always fair to those around her, and her interpretation of events won’t always jive with the reader’s, and both of those aspects of her voice make her even more real.
The romance isn’t at the center of everything. Yes, Emma’s relationship with Caleb helps to bring her back into the world**. Her relationship with her best friend is just as crucial, though, and when it comes down to it, it’s her relationship with her stepfather that is the most important. Getting to know Caleb, the knowledge that someone else gets it, acts as a catalyst, but it’s reconnecting with her stepfather that allows the grieving process to really begin.
It’s a weeper, for sure, but Scott never resorts to manipulation: The tears will come from sadness, from empathy, from catharsis. Two thumbs up.
*Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good book: it is! It’s not at all exploitative, in that much of the physical abuse is alluded to, rather than described in hideous detail, and Scott doesn’t take the easy way out by giving Alice a happy ending. The Kirkus review references Adam Rapp, even, which is high praise indeed.
**And it helps to bring him back, too.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.