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AWG Book Group discussion of Where My Heart Used to Beat, by Sebastian Faulks, Friday, January 10, 2020

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Another well attended meeting, with 10 members and one prospective member present.  I had recommended the book, and started by providing some biographical information about the author, including the fact that he was a teacher, and then a journalist, and the first literary editor of The Independent, before quitting journalism to write books full-time.  I then shared several reviews of the book, copied from the internet, including a very complimentary one by The Independent.  Other reviews, such as the one in The Irish Times (which was written by a woman), were not so laudatory.  Nor were the comments by many of the participants in the discussion.  Three had not yet read it, three liked it, and the opinion of the others was “so-so.”  One said, “At least I could read it to the end!”   But rarely do we have so many nasty things to say about a character in a book, as was the case concerning Dr. Hendricks.  “The reader is not meant to like him.”  “He drinks too much.”  “He is not just disconnected, but seriously disturbed.”  One comment was that Hendricks is “so repressed – it’s a way of challenging the reader, but one can also lose the reader.”  Another was that “he is able to do psychotic studies and research because he himself is psychotic.”  It was suggested that Faulks presented Dr. Hendricks as a part of himself, and that the reader is not meant to associate with Hendricks.  Hendricks is portrayed as a broken man.  He grew up without a father, since his father died during the war, and his mother was very cold.  These remarks were countered with the question, “Are we meant to think that everything conspired against him?  Are we meant to sympathize?”  Apart from one person who said that Hendricks had “a gift,” we basically knocked him down and tore him to pieces.  We also questioned his grasp of reality.  Perhaps he imagined the phone message he supposedly received when, at the start of the book, he returns to London from New York.  Perhaps he imagined the naked girl on the island off the south of France, much later in the book.  We talked a bit about memory, and one member said we think we remember, but we don’t really.  It was noted that a similar comment was made at a previous discussion:  “we remember what we want to remember” (discussion of The Summer Without Men).  Someone else said, “We create a narrative, and fill in the gaps.”  Another felt that memory is an important part of the book.  She also felt that the “psy stuff” is “OK” for those who understand it, but a bit much for her.  The question was raised, as a quote:  “Is life comprised of events themselves, or the way in which an individual chooses to remember them?”

Two people said they couldn’t get a grasp on the character of Dr. Hendricks.  One said the ending totally threw her.    The letter from Hendricks’ father could have been interpreted two ways.  She questioned whether Hendricks’ mother knew that his father had been convicted.  Was she ashamed of having a child by him?  The other said she was not satisfied with the ending, and that the letter from Hendricks’ father came too late, and was irrelevant by that point. 

We had a couple of specific questions.  Why does the French doctor Pereira have the letters from Hendricks’ father?  One reply was, ‘Because otherwise the book wouldn’t exist.”  And what about the dog, Max?  “He only comes out when it’s convenient.”  One person said she found the book “a bit boring.”  She felt that the “psy stuff” was meant to boost the intellectual level, compared to some of the rest of the story.  She also felt that some things were not credible, such as taking chocolate and silk stockings from Naples to Rome in wartime.  We commented on the fact that this was so obviously a different generation, and different situations.  It is hard to imagine a time when one could not look everything up on the internet, but instead sought information in the depths of someone else’s memory.

I am relatively certain that we talked about the fact that Luisa’s boss, Lily, and Dr. Pereira’s housekeeper, Paulette, were practically the only females in the story whom Hendricks did not try to bed, but I can’t find the specifics in my notes.  And I think that Hendricks’ colleague Judith was not an object of his desires either.  (“Judith herself was a woman of flexible intellect but rigid determination:  she could still the mania of large men by the power of her presence.”

Most of those who had read the book agreed that some of the writing is beautiful.  There were some meaningless relationships, but they were well described.  One person said that many passages were “brilliant,” but horrible.  Another said, “You start to see the world as Hendricks did, and that’s depressing.”  Although we found the writing beautiful, it seems strange that so few of us liked the book, but the reviews confirm the fact that it is controversial.  And despite all the negative comments, one participant said it’s the best book she has read with this group, which resembles my own opinion.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

One member who could not attend the meeting also enjoyed the book, and sent her comments, some of which are similar to what was said at the discussion:

“-  Great Title.   But it took a long way through the book to find out where his heart  did beat - i.e. for Luisa.

-  The author captures the essential aloneness and loneliness of Robert Hendricks - scarred psychologically by his war experiences, his heart and feelings shut down, and he wasn't interested in letting anyone in, that's why he wouldn't return to his regimental reunions after the war. (In Britain, those reunions were a major activity for those who had fought in WW2)

-  I believe that the author deliberately set out to make Hendricks so repressed, and inscrutable, that his readers would have difficulty in caring about him, even if they had empathy for his life and war experiences.  The opening of the book with the prostitute, and the scenes with Celine frolicking about in the south of France don't reflect well on him.  He's a doctor  and a professional, and living in a time when he was expected to be a gentleman  - we don't expect him to behave in any way other than being an upright, decent man, but he comes off as dissolute, if not pervy  - Faulks is playing with/challenging his readers here, he's not giving us a protagonist who is without flaws.  I felt that the point of the scene with the prostitute was to offend readers?

Good choice for a Book Group discussion.”

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p.s.  Karen recommended a non-fiction book, Naples 1944, by Norman Lewis.