Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Midwinter 2013. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Her full bottom lip trembled as she spoke. ‘You may not get all gushy about your feelings, but if I’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, it’s that any fool can learn to talk a good game about how they feel. It takes real strength to show up and prove it.’ She paused. ‘You hear me? Love is a verb.’ ”
After basically raising her younger brother, Sam, Grace McAlister never wanted children of her own. But when she meets Victor Hansen, she decides that she wants to give him a chance, even though he has two children with his ex-wife, Kelli. The kids live with their mother, and Grace figures that she can handle two weekends a month with Ava and Max. But shortly after Grace and Victor become engaged, Kelli dies unexpectedly, and under questionable circumstances, leaving Grace wondering whether or not she can be a full-time parent to two grieving children.
When her parents divorced, Ava Hansen found herself thrown into unexpected responsibilities supporting her emotionally unstable mother, and helping her take care of her younger brother, Max. She hopes that someday her father will come back to her family, but those hopes seem silly when her father moves in with Grace. When Kelli dies, information comes to light that causes Ava to question how well she knew her mother, and hints at hidden tragedies in her past. Ava struggles to reconcile herself to a relationship with Grace, while being forced to both grieve for her mother, and question their bond.
Heart Like Mine gets off to a rocky start, with a melodramatic and slightly contrived meet-cute scenario for Victor and Grace as Hatvany introduces the characters in the lead up to Kelli’s death. Similarly, Ava is established as a teenage stereotype by showing her being embarrassed by her mom and bullied by her peers, in a crude caricature of school life. After getting to know Grace for the rest of the book, I still felt by the end that her behaviour in the opening chapter was out of character. That being said, after Kelli dies, both Grace and Ava crystallize and the story takes off. Grace and Ava become equally sympathetic, even when they are at odds with one another, particularly because there are strong parallels between the two characters.
The story is comprised of sharp, uncomfortable edges where the characters try to fit the pieces of a broken family together into a new whole. There are ups and downs, but mostly downs, though Max’s character provides wonderful moments of comic relief. I also found myself particularly moved by the scene in which Grace and Victor laugh together for the first time after Kelli’s death, giving us a brief glimpse of normalcy in the otherwise tumultuous situation. Kelli’s chapters, which are flashbacks that Hatvany added to the book in a later draft, brought her character and her back story to life in a way that Grace and Ava’s investigations never could. One perspective I did miss in all of this was Victor, who connects the three POV characters, but never gets to speak for himself.
Unlike many comedy movies in which a childless woman (usually an aunt) finds herself unexpectedly caring for children, Grace and Victor’s situation is entirely plausible. And even more fortunately, this book is not one in which Grace miraculously discovers that children were the magical ingredient missing from her otherwise perfect life. Her love for Victor and her determination to help the family through this period of grief rang true where a sudden rush of maternal feeling would have struck a false note. Her character is all the more admirable because she genuinely struggles with the situation, but perseveres anyway. Although Heart Like Mine got off to a rocky start, it is ultimately a touching and realistic portrayal of grief, love and family that builds to a solid finish.
Already read and enjoyed Heart Like Mine? I recommend When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald.