The Heart Broke In
A novel by James Meek
2012 / 560 Pages
What exactly does it mean to be a “good person” and how much bullshit do we tell ourselves on a regular basis in order to convince our brains of the fact that we are? Those seem to be the probing questions at the center of James Meek’s Costa Book Award nominated novel The Heart Broke In.
Ritchie Shepard is a former 80s rock star turned successful TV producer with a loving wife and two small children. He’s got it all: fame, fortune, a family that adores him, and of course a nasty habit that involves sleeping around and cheating with underage girls. Why does he do it? Why can’t he stop? Whose fault is it that he’s this way? Certainly not his own!
His sister Bec is a famous scientist who injected herself with a potential cure for malaria in order to prove the drug’s effectiveness and speed up its testing and release cycle. Unfortunately, it only half works, and it has the rather nasty side effect of causing potentially permanent eye damage. When Bec agrees to marry a newspaper executive and then later returns the ring, she unwittingly sets into a motion a series of events that will forever change the lives of everyone she loves and cares about.
Ritchie’s got dreams, man. With his teen version of American Idol nearing the end of its successful television run he needs to find another project to keep him going. He thinks he’s found just the ticket. Why not make a documentary about the man who murdered his father during the war? He’ll film it all, the history, their first face to face encounter, the act of forgiveness, and he’ll cast himself in an awesomely positive light to boot. Win. Win. Win. Win. Bec throws a wrench his plans however when she refuses to give her blessing to the idea.
Undaunted, and thinking that he can eventually get her to come around, Ritchie plans what he thinks will be a business meeting with Bec’s ex-fiancé newspaper editor. What it turns into is something completely different. He meets with a man who is hell-bent on revenge, and if Ritchie doesn’t assist him with his nefarious plan to destroy his former love’s life, then he will find himself exposed to the world as a man who preys on innocent children. Complicating matters is the fact that Bec has moved on, and is now hooked up with Ritchie’s good friend and former drummer, another brilliant scientist who is currently working towards making immortality a reality.
There are so many deeply flawed, yet highly interesting characters populating the pages of Meek’s clever novel that what at first glance appears to be a nearly 600 page chore, quickly turns into a deeply affecting family saga about love, life, and the definition of doing the “right” thing. And let’s be honest, what does that even mean?
Doing the right thing for who? For yourself? For someone else? For the greater good of mankind? How do you make that determination? How do you rationalize the choices you make along the way? How far will you go to protect yourself from having to deal with the fallout of your own actions?
What’s most enthralling about Meek’s novel is that through the despicable character of Ritchie Shepard, he’s able to show us our own faults and expose our own flawed logic with regards to how we rationalize our actions and twist the narrative of our lives in order to cast ourselves in the most favorable light possible. Could we really survive any other way?
It’s not just Ritchie that is forced to face the truth however. Mirroring real life, each of Meek’s subjects has their strengths, as well as areas where they are deeply flawed.
Can you take ownership of your actions? Can you change? Can you become a “better person”? Perhaps most importantly, when faced with the stone cold reality of your actions, can you ever forgive yourself?
The heart breaks in. Love conquers all. Yeah, right.