Heartsick by Jessie Stephens

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The impetus for this book was – quite appropriately – a relationship breakup experienced by the author only days before she and her partner were due to travel overseas.  Bereft in an airport bookshop and failing to find a book – any book – which would ‘put words around how I’m feeling and doesn’t try to make me feel something different’ [viii], the author conceived the idea for this book.  But as she says, she wrote the book to say ‘heartbreak lives in all of us’ [xii].

Heartsick is predominately non-fiction and focusses on three people – Ana, Claire and Patrick – although their names have been changed.  Ana is in her forties and has been married for 25 years and has three children; Claire is in her mid-thirties and has moved to London where she meets Maggie; and Patrick is in his early twenties and has not yet had a girlfriend.

The book tells the stories of each of the characters as he/she negotiates their ways through new relationships.  Each story is quite different from the others and chapters related to each person alternate so there is a linear view of the trajectories of the relationships.  Consistent with the book’s title, none of the relationships ends well but each conclusion, while sharing some common qualities, is as different from the others in the detail as the characters are.

The first line of the first chapter of ‘Claire’ presages where Claire is in terms of her relationship with Maggie – ‘The room smells like dust and sour sweat’ [1].  Ana – although apparently in a happy marriage with Paul – is tormented by the intrusive thought that she ‘married the wrong man’ [7]; and that night, as she drifts into sleep, she allows herself to think about ‘the right one’ [7].  Patrick – a university student – is waiting in the software engineering lab for his fellow students to arrive to begin a shared assignment.  A student walks in and the first thing Patrick notices is ‘that the person walking in the door is a girl’ [8].  Her name is Caitlin who looks at him and when she does ‘it makes him feel like he exists’ [11].

Thus, the opening scenes are set for the narratives of these relationships as shared with the author by the persons involved and then retold to the readers as third-person stories.  Later chapters relate the backstories of Ana and Claire and how each arrived at the point where the first chapters begin.  Unlike the two women though, Patrick does not have a backstory – he arrives at his relationship with Caitlin fresh and unsullied.

This is a very effective method to set out the emotional minutiae of the relationships which the readers will correctly presume will ultimately fail.  In the hands of a lesser writer, the stories may well have been maudlin and self-absorbed but Jessie Stephens has crafted a fine book and one in which the reader cannot help but be fully engaged with each of Ana, Claire and Patrick.  The pain and anguish experienced by each as they struggle with their complex responses to a relationship breakdown and their lack of comprehension regarding the reasons why are beautifully and authentically expressed.  To add another layer of hurt, it seems that each of their partners has simply walked away – and began a new relationship – while Ana, Claire and Patrick are left behind to try to put their lives back together.

The book too is filled with insights into the interior lives of the three protagonists.  Patrick, for example, is not a talker; for him ‘words are butterflies, flying away whenever he gets too close to the right one’ [27].  Ana, after accepting that she now loves a man other than her husband, felt that ‘even if her eyes were closed, she’d know exactly where he [her lover] was, how many steps away from her he stood’ [61].  Claire, when she first realises that her relationship is over, slips into depression where ‘the world, really, is no more than two eyes and the light that lives behind them’ [216].  These insights all contribute to the very real sense that the reader is alongside each of Ana, Claire and Patrick as they, first, begin with excitement their relationships with [respectively] Rob, Maggie and Caitlin; and then, second, as they exit them with pain and hurt.

More than the personal stories of the three protagonists though, Heartsick also offers universality in how we can explore the human heart and how we all carry heartache from the past.  While these three stories may differ in some ways from our own experiences, there are without doubt emotions which are shared by all.

It is the author’s strength that she has captured in these stories universal feelings which resonate with everyone.  Heartsick is a fine book and is recommended.

Jessie Stephens is a Sydney-based writer and podcaster.  She is the Assistant Head of Content at Mamamia and co-host of the podcast Mamamia Out LoudHeartsick is her first book.

Heartsick

[2021]

by Jessie Stephens

Pan Macmillan Australia

ISBN 978 1 76098 154 9

$34.99; 314pp

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