Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: parental death, grief, step-parents
Format read: ARC paperback reviewed at BEA in May 2013.
Summary: When her pregnant mom dies suddenly from a stroke, Emma is completely distraught, and even more so when her stepfather, Dan, decides to have her mother’s body kept alive by machines in an effort to help their unborn baby survive. She completely shuts everyone and everything out of her life except Olivia (her best friend) and surprisingly, Caleb — a boy from school known for his rebellious acts.
“I think at a certain point you can choose to sort of fall from this or you can choose to rise.” – Lea Michele
I hope you don’t think it’s hokey that I’m using that quote to start off this review. But it just so happened Michele was making her first TV interview appearance a few days after I finished Heartbeat and everything she was saying aligned so well with the heavy subject matter tackled in Heartbeat: grief and what we do afterward.
Heartbeat begins shortly after Emma’s mom dies and Emma hasn’t gotten to that point that Michele talks about. Instead Emma’s life as she knows it — ruled by school deadlines and grades and the future — has taken a sudden nosedive into an abyss of not caring. Not caring about school, not caring about college prospects, and most definitely not caring about her step-father, Dan.
As far as non-biological parents go, it’s obvious from Emma’s memories and hurt feelings that Dan was a perfectly attentive and super loving father (she is so lucky). These good moments seem to disappear the minute Dan makes a very difficult decision without asking her opinion. In order to keep Emma’s unborn sibling alive, Dan chooses to keep her mother’s body hooked up to machines to ensure a better chance of survival for this child.
Can you imagine seeing your dead mother every single day, working enough to keep a baby alive but not quite enough to wake up and speak to you again? For Emma, it’s like part of the greiving process is put on hold because the small tiny possibility that her mom could wake up still pops up. So she’s angry at Dan — angry because she doesn’t think he knows how her mom really felt about anything and angry because of this baby that will never know his mother.
Scott’s book largely consists of Emma’s internalizations because most of her actions have become routine: make it through school, see Mom, ignore Dan, be comforted by her best friend, Olivia. Rinse and repeat. Misunderstood bad boy, Caleb, shakes things up when he shows up volunteering at the hospital. Emma is drawn to him, and it’s their budding friendship and his ability to relate to what she is going through that gives her something to think about other than her mother. Exactly the first tiny step she needs.
Emma’s journey of moving ahead and moving on is not smooth. Not even close. She is fixated on so many small details, probably trying to find a way to make such a non-sensical thing like death make sense. While understandable, I felt this was frustrating as a reader. It was like I knew what she was thinking before she thought it; even once she hit certain ephiphanies, Emma continued to go back and forth with her feelings. There were so many times I wanted Dan to rush in and pull rank; an adult really needed to. She was a struggling child, and blatantly disrespected Dan and her mom’s marriage on multiple occasions.
One thing I did appreciate was Emma’s friendship with Olivia (who hated all techy things; I loved this detail). I think Scott did a realistic job of portraying two girls who suddenly have very different lives. How do you give comfort to a friend when you haven’t experienced the same kind of heartbreak? How can you share your own problems when they seem so trivial compared to Emma’s situation? Emma and Olivia had a little bit of work, a bit of a struggle, and it was a conflict that felt so true to life.
None of the characters in Heartbeat are perfect, and while that portrayal felt spot-on (because who really knows how they are going to act until they are forced into this terrible situation), I wish I hadn’t felt quite so disconnected from Emma. The book is extremely fast-paced because the chapters are so compact, but Emma’s growth through the story didn’t progress quite the way I thought it should. I was never expecting her to be 100% okay but the “breakthrough” came very late in the story, and it felt off.
I do think Heartbeat is a very discussion worthy novel because of all the shades of gray it presents. Was Dan right in his decision? Is Emma being selfish? How do you figure out what the deceased wanted without second guessing yourself? There’s so much that’s intriging here and the chemistry between Emma and Caleb is great but, in the end, Heartbeat just didn’t have the emotional impact I was expecting.