Emily Giffin’s fifth novel, Heart of the Matter, takes yet another look at the complexities of human nature. Two women who have seemingly nothing in common with each other are going to soon become the source of each other’s heartache. Tessa has the perfect life. She is the wife of a pediatric plastic surgeon and a stay at home mother of two. From the outside, her marriage seems happy and she is content with her husband, Nick. Valerie is a single mom, lawyer, and has brought herself up from a meager background in her childhood. Self sufficient yet lonely, she lacks good friends and is very devoted to her work. Her son, Charlie, is a six-year-old who has a normal life until an accident severely burns his hand and face. Tessa’s husband Nick gets called into the hospital to take over Charlie’s care and begin the steps to help the child recover from his burns. Due to the severity of Charlie’s case, Nick tells Valerie that it’s going to be a long recovery period due to multiple surgeries and physical therapy sessions. As Charlie’s recovery progresses, so does Nick’s interaction with Valerie. Tessa notices he begins working stranger hours than usual, and that he’s become very withdrawn from their marriage and children. Valerie finds herself enjoying Nick’s attentions more and more, and begins believing that a future between the two of them could be possible. Will Tessa find out about Nick’s growing affections for Valerie? Will something happen between Valerie and Nick, forcing an end to his marriage with Tessa? Will anyone get a happy ending?
Going into the reading of Heart of the Matter, I had high expectations having enjoyed two other Giffin novels: Something Borrowed and Something Blue. Alas, I was sorely disappointed. The book alternates between Tessa’s point of view and a third person narrative of Valerie’s story. Tessa’s chapters featured the use of “I”, while Valerie’s chapters featured “she”. It felt very disjointed to read the book in this way; I think the book would have flowed better if each woman told her story through her own point of view.
The plot didn’t seem to work for me. I’m not sure if it’s because I disagreed with the ending that I feel this way, but the major conflict of the book has a large effect on all the characters, and the ending doesn’t seem to sufficiently fix anything. I’m all for leaving open-ended questions for the reader to ponder on his/her own, yet this seemed a bit too open for me. Additionally, the character’s actions didn’t seem to match their personalities. Here we have two strong, independent women: Tessa was a professor and had a great and stable professional career, and Valerie is a lawyer with a similar successful career. However, both women begin to submit to Nick, who although altruistic in his professional life as a pediatric burn surgeon, doesn’t warrant this much attention and fawning. Tessa gives up her job and becomes a stay at home mom, and Valerie begins to devote all her energy to being with him and submitting to his affections. If Nick’s character was exceptional in both career and personal life I could understand both women losing themselves in their affections for him, yet I don’t believe this was the case.
Despite these faults, Giffin gives a realistic view into the complexities of married life. As a newlywed myself, I can say that marriage is something that takes work, and without the effort of both partners it will fail. Giffin clearly demonstrates what happens when a marriage becomes one-sided. As a reader you get to be inside Tessa’s head and really go through the ups and downs of her marriage with her. I think this realistic portrayal is the novel’s saving grace. While I myself don’t agree with the final outcome of the novel, I understand that each couple’s marriage is their own, and that the outcome is truly up to the specific circumstances within that marriage. I think that the group of people who would most enjoy this book are those who are married or are in long-term relationships. I personally enjoy reading about how other couples deal with certain conflicts, as it can be a learning experience for my own relationship. (This is not to say that the events of this book are in any way shape or form prevalent in my own marriage!!) So, for a good introspective look into your own interpersonal relations, check this one out! It will definitely make you think.
3 out of 5 stars
Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin
St. Martin’s Press (2011)
Paperback 400 pages
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