(Cross-posted at We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)
by Garret Freymann-Weyr
Published by Penguin Group, 2002
Ages: 12 and up (probably more appropriate for YA than ML)
Awards: Michael L. Printz Award Honor Book; ALA Best Book for Young Adults; Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year; Booklist Editors’ Choice Top of the List
When it comes to human sexuality, there are relatively few absolutes. According to the famous Kinsey Reports, all sexuality falls on a scale from 0-6, where a 0 indicates exclusively heterosexual feelings and experiences and a 6 indicates exclusively homosexual feelings and experiences; all people fall somewhere on that scale, and not necessarily at either end. Knowledge of the complexities and variances in sexual identity is helpful in understanding the characters in My Heartbeat, a quiet little book about complicated love.
The protagonist and narrator of My Heartbeat is fourteen-year-old Ellen, who has had a crush on her older brother’s best friend for as long as she can remember. Her brother, Link, is a precocious sixteen and a senior at their prestigious private school. His best friend, and the object of Ellen’s attention, is James – also a senior, but warm and artistic where Link is detached and mathematical. After she matriculates to the high school, Ellen’s classmates clue her in to the possibility that Link and James are more than just friends. This leads to hard times in her small world; Ellen wants nothing more than the security and companionship of their odd threesome, but her questions about James and Link’s relationship push Link away from his family and his friend.
Much of the book deals with Ellen’s gentle refusal to be absorbed into the mainstream, and with James’s equally gentle manner of helping her grow as a sister, thinker, artist, and – eventually – woman. Although Ellen is the voice of the novel, the story isn’t really about her; it’s about Link and James, and Link-and-James, and James-and-Ellen, and finally Ellen-and-Link. The back cover blurb calls it “an unexpected, thought-provoking love story,” which is accurate if you read that as a story about love rather than a romantic story. My Heartbeat isn’t romantic; it’s awkward, clever, and complicated.
As I read My Heartbeat, I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between Ellen and Link’s characters and another famous literary set of siblings. Something about Link’s personality called to my mind an older Jem Fitch, in a very different set of circumstances, trying simultaneously to impress his austere father and forge his own, unapproved path. Similarly, in Ellen I saw the curiosity, fearlessness, and innocence of Scout, as well as her inherently loving and trusting nature. Although it’s a stretch that might not occur to all readers, I think a classroom comparison of sibling relationships in Mockingbird and Heartbeat would render excellent discussion fodder!
While this book is written in a style that is appropriate for young readers, and is something that I would like to see made available to middle school students, it does have some – well, complicated adult situations that require a certain level of maturity in the reader. Direct references (but not depictions) of gay sex between a minor and an adult, and a frankly depicted straight sexual encounter between two minors – including discussion about birth control methods and STDs – are important components to this book. It’s tricky ground; the subject needs to be introduced in an honest and straightforward way, but it’s difficult or impossible to do so without delving deeper into details than deemed appropriate by many parents and administrators.