Dale Sampson is used to being a nonperson at his small-town Midwestern high school, picking up the scraps of his charismatic lothario of a best friend, Mack. He comforts himself with the certainty that his stellar academic record and brains will bring him the adulation that has evaded him in high school. But when an unthinkable catastrophe tears away the one girl he ever had a chance with, his life takes a bizarre turn as he discovers an inexplicable power: He can regenerate his organs and limbs.
When a chance encounter brings him face to face with a girl from his past, he decides that he must use his gift to save her from a violent husband and dismal future. His quest takes him to the glitz and greed of Hollywood, and into the crosshairs of shadowy forces bent on using and abusing his gift. Can Dale use his power to redeem himself and those he loves, or will the one thing that finally makes him special be his demise? The Heart Does Not Grow Back is a darkly comic, starkly original take on the superhero tale, introducing an exceptional new literary voice in Fred Venturini.
I rarely read from the literary fiction shelves of the book store, not because I absolutely dislike it – though having to analyse oodles of the stuff for classes at university did put me off somewhat – but because there’s only so much you can read and my heart lies elsewhere. Yet when I was approached about being part for the blog tour for Fred Venturini’s The Heart Does Not Grow Back, the synopsis and the superhero angle hooked me right and proper—I’d say that whoever wrote that flap text did a very good job. Yet while Dale’s superpower is the motor of the narrative, the stuff that powers said motor is human emotion. Venturini’s debut novel, which was previously published as The Samaritan by Blank Slate Press and was a Kitchies finalist, is a strong effort and an interesting contemplation of the human condition.
The book’s narrator Dale is easy to like and to identify with for most geeky people; an underachiever socially and an overachiever academically, he’s lonely and ignored – unless it is to be made fun of – by the glitterati of his high school. It is only once he’s adopted by baseball letterman Mack that he picks up some social currency. Yet from this promising beginning, when it seems all might be coming together for him, everything collapses like a house of cards and it’s strange to ponder how much goes so catastrophically wrong. The frustrating thing is that the points where things go off the rails are easily pinpointed and nine times out of ten could have been prevented if people had been honest with each other or had at least communicated.
Dale’s story is strangely compelling, even if at times my imagination was stretched to its limit. Funnily enough, it is not the superpower angle or the reality TV show that flows out of it that threatened my suspension of disbelief. It was the fact that no one realised that Dale was living alone as a minor after his mother died. I mean how is that even possible? Between school, the hospital, and child services, how can no one have thought to check? Then again, perhaps it says more about me that I can’t wrap my head around such a real-world failure, but don’t even bat an eye lash at the fact Dale can regenerate his organs.
The complexity of Dale’s inner life and the motivations of the other characters Venturini creates is fascinating and sometimes rather chilling. Dale’s intentions, especially in the second half of the book, are hard to parse. His decisions swing between selfish and altruistic and quite often these reasons overlap, making him very human, but also shaded in many tints of grey. I found myself wondering what I would do when given this regenerative power, would I take the path Dale chose or would I just keep my organs where they were and to hell with karma? Given the circumstances and effects of multiple organ removal on Dale and his gift, I really couldn’t say. Out of the characters that were connected to Dale mostly strongly throughout the narrative – Mack, Rae, Holly, and Doc Venhaus – I felt the most for Holly, because she is both saved and abandoned by Dale and his team. Yet, I liked how each of them react to Dale and his power differently, yet all of them ultimately benefit from it in some way or another.
In the end the entire book is not about Dale’s superpower, but about coming to terms with the traumatic events early in the book. The Heart Does Not Grow Back holds clues about the narrative and Dale’s superpower, but I wonder when exactly Dale’s heart stopped working, whether a broken heart would have mended, or whether that was the point of no return. Venturini’s debut is an impressive novel with an ending that is both open and conclusive, as the story finishes at a natural end point, yet it leaves it to the readers to decide whether this is a happy ending or not. I enjoyed The Heart Does Not Grow Back very much and SFF fans with a literary bent should very much give this a try.
A Fantastical Librarian is just one of the stops on this blog tour. Please visit the other stops for different views on the book and author guest posts.
Monday, October 13th: Benni’s Bookbiters
Tuesday, October 14th: Books a la Mode – author guest post
Wednesday, October 15th: Read a Latte
Thursday, October 16th: Benni’s Bookbiters – an unofficial soundtrack
Monday, October 20th: Bell, Book & Candle
Wednesday, October 22nd: My Shelf Confessions – Wonderfully Wicked Read-A-Thon Giveaway
Thursday, October 23rd: Saints and Sinners
Monday, October 27th: Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Monday, October 27th: A Fantastical Librarian
Wednesday, October 29th: In Bed with Books
Monday, November 3rd: Book Marks the Spot
Tuesday, November 4th: Read-Love-Blog
Wednesday, November 5th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Thursday, November 6th: Sweet Southern Home
Friday, November 7th: The Steadfast Reader
Monday, November 10th: Fourth Street Review
Monday, November 10th: Guiltless Reading
Tuesday, November 11th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, November 12th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, November 13th: More Than Just Magic
Monday, November 17th: A Book Geek
Thursday, November 20th: Bibliophilia, Please