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Book #71: The Death Of The Heart

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not the kind of guy who enjoys reading teenage love stories on my beach vacation, which will be here in a few weeks.

So it’s wonderful timing that I’m wrapping up The Death of the Heart today—just in time to leave it at home when I go on vacation. Won’t The Lord of the Rings be the perfect read for the beach?

I took way too long to finish this book. At first, I thought the novel would be a slog—the opening didn’t exactly give me warm and fuzzies about enjoying The Death of the Heart. But it improved. The novel gets better. Elizabeth Bowen is obviously in her element writing this book. Everything about the story feels natural and unforced.

To give you a brief summary of the story, The Death of the Heart follows the plight of Portia, a 16-year-old orphan who is taken in by her older brother and his wife (Thomas and Anna) in London. She mostly keeps to herself, and her sister-in-law isn’t too fond of her living with the family. At one point, they go on a long vacation without Portia, shipping her off to live with a family friend.

In the middle of all this, Portia falls for an older man. He’s a 23-year-old creepster named Eddie, who hints at having had a relationship with Portia’s sister-in-law (Anna) in the past.

The whole novel is a character study. All of the tension revolves around Portia’s infatuation with Eddie, and Eddie’s expert ability to tease her while keeping her at arm’s length. There’s not much going on other than that.

Meanwhile, Bowen is brilliant at keeping the reader at an arm’s length from “getting” these characters. Are they good people? Are they bad people? Can you really like them and trust them?

Outside of Portia, the innocent one here, that’s a hard question to answer about these other characters. We’ve all got our problems and personality flaws, and Bowen throws you right in the middle of these people’s issues. They’re relatable characters because of their ambiguity.

She uses a technique I’ve seen in a lot of the recent novels I’ve been reading for the list. It’s moving from narration into a first-person letter or journal. I saw this a lot with Possession, and here it is again in The Death of the Heart, though not near as frequent.

You’ll be reading a lot from Portia’s journal entries. Quick short bursts of writing with very little description:

I am back here, in London. They won’t be back till tomorrow.

And that diary ends up playing a large part in the story, when its discovered by Portia’s sister-in-law, Anna.

In all, The Death of the Heart turned out better than I originally expected. It’s still not a novel you’ll see me running through the streets screaming about, but I’d recommend to people who I thought would appreciate it.

One last thought. My post from last week about teenage romance stories gave the impression that The Death of the Heart is a YA novel. It’s absolutely not. The protagonist is a teenage girl, but the themes and the issues within this story are absolutely not YA material.

So keep that in mind if you decide to jump into The Death of the Heart.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.”

The Meaning: I think you could rename the book to The Death of the Innocence and it would convey the same meaning. That’s what this is about—a 16-year-old girl is experiencing the reality of adulthood and the complexities of relationships for the first time.

Highlights: As I mentioned in the review, I love how Bowen handles the character development in this novel.

Lowlights: Overly descriptive at times. Not a lot of plot, but that’s intentional.

Memorable Line: ““A romantic man often feels more uplifted with two women than with one: his love seems to hit the ideal mark somewhere between two different faces.”

Final Thoughts: In all, this was a nice book. A little wordy, a little dry at times. I wouldn’t read The Death of the Heart again, but I wouldn’t have any problem recommending it to you if it sounds like a book you might enjoy.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Grace #

    What age would you recommend this to?


    June 11, 2014
    • It is an adult book that deals with the difficulties of maturing and learning about the world.

      That said, I do not believe that any book should be off-limits for younger readers. They will generally select and read books that they are ready for. Although younger readers may read some books that would not normally be chosen for them, the possible damage is far less than if the young readers are denied access. Besides, if someone wants to read something, they will read it even if under the covers with a flashlight at night.

      The way I see it, I would much rather have my child reading something questionable in front of me where I can answer questions.


      June 11, 2014
    • Yes, I’ll agree with Mike. It’s a bit heady at times, but I think it’s fine for a teenager to read.


      June 12, 2014
  2. Reading The Lord of the Rings on the beach was a perfect read at the beach in 1965.

    Today with the many years of open commentary and the various cinematic adaptations, LOTR seems a bit clichéd. However, Tolkien was drawing on his knowledge of early literature and folklore in writing his fiction. When I reread LOTR in the early ’90s I realized that my background in literature and curiosity about the original sources of Tolkien’s fantasy made the fiction far more interesting. If it hadn’t been for this added view, I doubt that I could have sustained my interest through all the books of the “trilogy.” LOTR is a good story but if you’ve read it once, it is tedious at best to reread.


    June 11, 2014
  3. I’d never heard of this novel before you started reviewing it, so thanks for introducing it! That’s the best thing about the list you’re using – there’s guaranteed to be some hidden gems on there. I’m not sure if I’d read Bowen’s novel or not, but it does sound intriguing. I tend to like novels that are more character-oriented than plot-oriented, anyway, so it might be a good read for me. Thanks for such a detailed review! 🙂


    June 11, 2014
  4. One of the reasons for a writer to read this is to learn how to do a character study. When you read a book like this, you learn what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure reading all these books has improving your writing. That’s what writers do, we read.


    June 11, 2014

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