Review of HEART OF THE MATTER by EMILY GIFFIN
(review based on audiobook, read by CYNTHIA NIXON)
I have only recently started listening to audiobooks more. Honestly, I set the bar lower for audiobooks. My selections are usually books I’m not sure I’ll like; if I’m convinced I’ll love a book I want to read the paper copy. As for HEART OF THE MATTER, I had two reasons to suspect it might not be for me: 1. It’s by Emily Giffin, with whose work I have a love/hate relationship. And 2. The main storyline is about a potential affair and I often don’t find cheating that interesting as a secondary storyline let alone the main focus. While the audiobook held my attention more than I suspected (with complex characters - what I look for most in a book), as I anticipated I struggled investing much in the primary plotline.
Giffin’s work frequently centers on dynamic characters battling with adultery. The first part - dynamic characters - is what I love about her work. The latter - a fixation on adultery - is what I hate, often because I feel like the character’s actions are being justified to me as the reader. HEART OF THE MATTER did a much better job, I felt, of stepping back and telling a story about flawed people without interjecting hints about how I “should” feel - though I will admit to a sense of building the adulterers up as over-the-top good people as though to compensate for the principal focus on their decisions that hurt others.
In HEART OF THE MATTER, single mother Valerie is beyond devastated when an unprecedented accident at a birthday party leaves her son with terrible burns, including on his face. The tragedy brings them to renowned plastic surgeon, Nick, who specializes in re-crafting faces after mishaps such as these. Nick has a smart, beautiful, wonder-woman of a wife back home not to mention two adorable young children and Valerie knows perfectly well that her son’s new surgeon is married. Yet Nick finds himself drawn to this strong, single woman and her endearing, brave little boy while Valerie feels so connected to their empathetic doctor. The story alternates between Valerie’s viewpoint and that of Nick’s wife, Tessa, as she senses her husband pulling away before she even suspects anything specific.
There is an extremely slow build to the actual affair. Mostly the book examines how this can happen, even to well-intentioned people who aren’t merely selfish and opportunistic. The story carefully sets the groundwork piece by piece, laying out the attraction, the vulnerabilities, the temptation, and the faltering will to resist. Then the story wraps up fairly quickly after the inevitable fallout. I personally would have preferred more focus on the repercussions and the decisions everyone ultimately makes and less on what feels like long-winded rationalization.
A big part of why I enjoyed this audiobook, though, is that I loved the narrator, Cynthia Nixon. She makes following along with the story easy and she naturally slips between different character voices and the smooth, sober voice she uses for the main prose (which provides the perfect background for all the turmoil and inner reflection).
For the most part, I admired the craftsmanship of these characters. Each is flawed but likable and Giffin seems careful not to villainize or show preference for any one character. I particularly enjoyed Tessa’s plotline as the housewife suspicious she’s being betrayed. All kind of themes of gender, feminism, and relationships seep up from subtext to explicit focus as Tessa wonders if Nick appreciates how she gave up her high powered career to take better care of their home and children - or if he only views her as lesser now. Tessa’s mother passionately warned her against being a stay-at-home mother, insisting that it makes women more susceptible to this kind of thing. The husband may express sincere gratitude for all the wife does at home, but he still views her work as easier and, as Tessa’s mother maintains, his eye can be easily drawn by the next driven, accomplished, impressive woman to come his way. I also thought that Nick’s role as doctor to Valerie’s son added another layer of misplaced trust. Aside from any arguments about the ethics of cheating, I felt very much that Nick, albeit not deliberately, takes advantage of his role of power and support in a time of great need and vulnerability.
I suspect I might not have liked this book at all had it not been for the children. Kids add further complications to adultery. First, because people who might simply leave an unhappy relationship without kids won’t necessarily do the same when there’s kids involved. Second, because they are yet more people hurt by these decisions. Though Valerie expresses regret for hurting any other woman and Tessa in particular, her primary remorse is the fear that she’s allowing a stable father figure into her son’s life only for him to be ripped away whenever Nick realizes he really belongs elsewhere.
As I touched on, the ending feels somewhat anticlimactic. It tries not to wrap things up too neatly but in avoiding that particular pitfall it falls into the reverse one of being somewhat unsatisfying by the lack of any closure or final note. The story essentially trickles off and leaves the reader to write the rest in your own head as you see fit.
I go back and forth on whether or not this a good book group book. On the one hand, there is plenty to discuss and cheating is a heated topic. However, most people already have quite firm, unyielding opinions on this matter, which cripples debates. A good argument takes place between two or more sides each willing to keep their mind open enough to listen, genuinely consider the new perspective, and possibly adjust their view.
Had I read this as a physical book I likely would have been more frustrated with its weaknesses, but as something I could listen to in the background while working on other things I really enjoyed musing over the characters and themes.