Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.
I never would have discovered this hidden gem if it weren't for my booktwin Martha reviewing it so glowingly a few years back. Not only had I not heard of Garret Freymann-Weyr before, but I'm pretty sure neither of these covers would have induced me to pick it up. Seriously, what in the world were they going for with the one on the left? I just...I have no idea. But I know they missed. And the one on the right is sort of cute, but really not indicative at all of what's inside. So. The Printz Honor award, on the other hand, always draws my eye as I've been quite impressed with the majority of Printz picks over the last few years. I would have given this one the award itself--I love it that much. So when an upcoming trip to Morocco rested on the horizon, I went out and purchased a copy of My Heartbeat to take with me. Despite the fact that it's a slim 160 pages, I could tell it should be in the stack as I was packing. I ended up pulling it out one night in our bed & breakfast in Essaouira and staying up much too late devouring it in one gulp. What a lovely memory that night remains. And yet I've talked to comparatively few people who've read this beautiful book. And so today I'm going to tell you exactly why I love it with such intensity.
Ellen and her old brother Link live with their crazy busy parents in a full but cozy apartment in Manhattan. They attend the same prestigious private school with Link's best friend James, who Ellen has been in love with for a couple of years now. Link is something of a math genius, a dedicated track star, and quite a talented pianist. James is also a gifted musician (though he has to have sheet music to play), a film buff, and an artist. Together they are her favorite people in the world and she considers life good when the three of them are hanging out together. One day at lunch, after bringing home one too many letters from school criticizing her social skills (or lack thereof), Ellen attempts to be a bit more outgoing and sits with some other girls. When the conversation turns to Link and James, one of the girls says to her, "They're like a couple, aren't they?" And that single sentence turns Ellen's world on end. She realizes this issue has simply never occurred to her before. Nor has the issue of why neither of her boys spends much time with girls. Besides her. Afraid to ask the question, but wanting desperately to understand them both better, Ellen goes first to her mother. And then to Link and James. Their respective responses to her question open up a can of worms Ellen was desperately hoping to avoid, brings down an invisible wall between Link and James, and provides the stepping off point for the beginning of Ellen's education on life, love, loyalty, and how many different versions there are of all of them.
It was love at first sight with these three. I can't tell you how quickly I fell for them. Maybe it was when Ellen first revealed that telling Link she thought James was super cute was the only way her seventh-grade self could verbalize totally madly in love. Maybe it was when she kept picturing him as the heroes in the novels she was reading for English class. It could have been every day when Link and James sat on the fire escape during lunch, Link critiquing James' art, prowling the halls after in search of who knows what. Or maybe it was simply when Link and Ellen watched Casablanca together and stood up to sing the "Marseillaise" along with the actors just as their dad taught them to when they were nine and seven years old. My Heartbeat is filled with a million little perfect moments, exquisite glimpses into the lives of others as they try and fail and try to know one another and learn that sometimes the ones you love the most are the ones you know the least. A favorite passage early on as Ellen goes in search of Link after he and James have had a disagreement:
I decide to go knock on Link's door and tell him I can't sleep.
When I was little we used to sleep in each other's rooms the night before all special occasions: Christmas, trips to Europe, first days of school, and birthdays. We stopped when I was nine or ten. I don't remember which one of us decided we were too old or if anything was said. It just stopped. Special occasions now come and go without our marking it by sleeping in the same room. Link's not exactly Mr. Hospitality tonight, saying, in response to my knock, "I told you no."
"It's Ellen," I say, knowing he hasn't told me no in a few days.
"It's open for you," he says and I go in.
"Who'd you tell no?" I ask, settling carefully into the broken armchair near his bed.
"Your mother," he says.
When he's mad at Mom or Dad, they become your mother or your father, as if I were responsible for their behavior. It's my policy never to ask why he's mad at them. Why borrow trouble?
"James went out," I say.
"Yeah, I know," Link says. "Your mother wanted to know where he went."
"Do you know?" I ask.
"Ellen, it's late."
"I don't think he likes that guy at all," I say, wanting to reassure him. And probably myself.
"Which guy?" Link asks, sitting up in bed. "What are you talking about?"
"The tennis champion," I say.
"Oh, that. He was just kidding, Ellen. You can't take James seriously."
"So where is he?" I ask.
"I don't know," Link says. "He wanted to go out and I didn't. End of story."
"How come what?" Link asks.
I don't say anything. He's not asking me a question so much as telling me it's none of my business. He never says that to me in a flat-out way, of course. It's more Link's style to put all the important information into what he doesn't say. Sometimes I understand him and lots of times I don't. Tonight I do.
"He should have asked you to go," Link says. "You would have gone with him."
"I might," I say. Probably. Sure. No doubt about it.
"You would," my brother says. "You would follow James to the moon."
I don't say anything, and after a while Link asks if I want to sleep in his room.
"Yes," I say. "Because it's my birthday tomorrow."
"It's two in the morning," Link says. "Tomorrow is here."
He gets out of bed, and while he's whispering (instead of singing) "Happy Birthday," he clears a space on the floor, where he makes up a sleeping area with a quilt and two of his pillows.
"You take the bed," he says, the way he used to when I was nine.
I lie awake for a long time. For hours after Link has drifted off to sleep. I listen for and I hear James returning to the house. It is true I would follow James to the moon. But if Link would let me, I would follow him anywhere he wanted.
I fell so in love with the relationships in this book. Every one of them. Ellen and Link. Ellen and James. Ellen and her mother. Ellen and her father. They seemed at once so far removed from me and so much the same. I loved the complexity of this most unusual and refreshing of love triangles. It is a mature story, an at times painful story, and it deals with mature and endlessly complicated issues including sexual identity, artistic philosophy, the rigidity of expectations and social mores, and the elasticity of the heart. It will not be for everyone. But it was so very much for me. What a sweet, sweet story and how much I wanted to sit in cafés with Ellen, James, and Link and just be intellectual and chummy with them. Finest kind.