Heart of the Matter

Inkberry Books came through with yet another fascinating story. Justin Courter’s The Heart of it All is a little bit mid-life-crisis, a little rebellious and extremely engaging.

This review originally appeared in the May 25th edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier. (and here’s the vlog!)

We first meet narrator John Ritter shortly after he’s moved back to Cincinnati, or “Cincinasty,” as he calls it, in order to help his grandmother who has Alzheimer’s. But this homecoming is more difficult than he perhaps expected—in addition to taking care of his grandmother, he works for a crook of an old “friend,” is kind of hung up on an ex-girlfriend and in general, is struggling with life.

Somewhat surprisingly, his grandmother and her forgetful friends are the least of his worries. In fact, he actually enjoys going to daycare and hanging out with all of them. It also doesn’t hurt that he is attracted to the daycare lady Beverly, who runs the place. In a way, being with these people gives him a sense of calm. “People with Alzheimer’s have no memory of the past (except long past) and no anxiety about the future…Only the moment matters.” 

In his own words, John is feeling pressure from the past and future-–he keeps thinking about his first love— and as much as he loves his grandmother, it’s clear that she’s not quite the same woman she once was. As for the future, it seems as though he’s dreading it. At 30 years old, he hasn’t done much with his life and he rebels every time people encourage him to look for a career. There’s a part where he actually becomes somewhat self-aware of this fact when he jokes about reading how the Earth will end one day, so why is he worrying so much if he throws out a styrofoam cup now and then. His sardonic, existential outlook is painfully relatable at times, if not simply entertaining at others.

I enjoyed his antics throughout the book, which somewhat mirror the antics imagined by the pixies in the books his grandmother helped write. To some degree, it’s these fictional pixies that, in a roundabout way, give him hope and direction for his future. But that hope doesn’t actualize for John until later in the book. At the beginning, he’s frustrated at the world, at his situation. He doesn’t think it’s fair that his grandmother is losing her memory, or that his aunt is trying to put her in a home. Returning home, he’s greeted with billboards advertising the American dream; disgusted, he and an old friend vandalize them in the middle of the night.

A short book, The Heart of it All is just under 200 pages and while the beginning was a little slow, it’s a very engaging read. I wanted to know more about John’s relationship to his grandmother, wanted to see if things went anywhere with Beverly, and who the heck Carla was and why was he still obsessed? I actually think it was really interesting how Courter addressed this last question.

He peppered mentions of the ex-girlfriend throughout the beginning of the book, but it wasn’t until about half way through we learned more. Carla was the unconventional “it girl.” She was sassy and smart, seemingly carefree, and it’s clear that John loved her. We never learn exactly how they broke up-–though we do learn about a trip abroad and a jealousy-inspiring conversation she had with another guy. But she’s still kind of a mystery. I didn’t mind this, though, because it seemed reflective of how many see their first real relationships—exciting and, for the most part, through a rose-colored lens.

I also liked how an eventual meeting with Carla provided, to a degree, the closure John so clearly needed. Because of that closure, the novel became a sort of coming-of-age story, whereas without it, I think the already limited character growth would be underwhelming. For example, while I liked the fact that John developed confidence to stand up to his boss, and that he eventually let go of the notion that he was taking good care of his grandmother, I think John would have stayed stuck and angry in Cincinasty rather than moving on with his life.

I would definitely recommend this story to those who like contemporary fiction that is very character-focused. John is a complex character who’s interesting and fun to read. He does, however, swear fairly frequently and his attraction to Beverly is more superficial than anything, so there might be some parts which are a little uncomfortable for some readers. But for those who enjoy stories about complicated people trying to get it together, this is an excellent option.

That’s all I’ve got this week! Keep an eye out for next week’s review of Nora McInerny‘s Bad Vibes Only, which comes out later this year. Thanks to The Wandering Jellyfish Bookshop for hooking me up with an ARC 🙂

Happy Reading!


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