Sometimes you want a novel that will take you places. A great caper with a muscle-y hero. Or maybe a lean, snarky world-travelling diamond thief. Maybe you want to be a part of a great romance without having to go on a first date—let your knees buckle and your pulse quicken with a pleasure you’d thought long lost. Or maybe still, you want to travel through the walls of history, peering at the fall of the Third Reich or a blood-splattered Chanel suit from the comfort of your home.
But sometimes, reading isn’t like that at all. Sometimes, reading just takes you home.
That’s exactly how I felt upon finishing Ed Tarkington’s great debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Ask one hundred readers what this novel is about, and you’re likely to get one hundred unique responses. This says nothing about Tarkington’s lack of focus, or the absence of a plot. Rather, this novel taps into so many elemental reactions, I think each response would tell more about the responder than this novel.
So what IS it about (admitting I’ll most likely reveal my own hand too much)?
This is a novel about families. This is a novel about class. This is a novel about growing up. This is a novel about being an outsider.
Tarkington’s novel centers around a pair of brothers, the super-cool, eternally-smoking, zippo-wielding, ruckus-causing Paul and his much younger, wide-eyed counterpart “Rocky.” The novel starts with Paul emotionally derailing, and bringing Rocky along for the brief but frightening ride. End of Part one.
Have I been vague enough? Good. This is definitely one of those novels where you don’t need to know the plot.
What I forgot to mention is that this novel is a lot of fun to read. The book jacket tried to cast this as a murder-mystery, which pretty much misses the point all together. Instead, this is a portrait of a Southern family, not quite good enough to be elite, but certainly better than their eldest son acts. Tarkington did a wonderful job at building a house on a plot of land, and pushing a motley menagerie of characters through the door: Paul’s troubled, dreamy girlfriend, the “Old Man’s” spoiled, alcoholic ex-wife, a redhead named Cinnamon and a living-room psychic.
What struck me first upon closing this book is how much I loved the characters. I wanted to immediately close up the bookstore and head home, where I would find the bearded, brawny Paul waiting for me with a cigarette and a vinyl spinning. I felt that I knew Rocky intimately; it’s rare that I connect so intensely with a male character, but Rocky was an exception. I saw the world through his eyes—his fallible parents, his first great love, the smell of the stables and the feel of his family’s house.
Although I would say Tarkington’s greatest strength was his character development, he’s no slouch on story. Tarkington cleverly plots the world of Only Love Can Break Your Heart so naturally, you hardly notice the turning of the pages. In some ways, this reads like Wally Lamb when he’s at his absolute best, or Richard Russo perhaps, but both with a little Twin Peaks thrown in to heighten our fear that anything can happen…anything will happen.
The one downside of this novel (there are always downsides, aren’t there?) is the first 50 pages. I hope the author forgives my criticism (if he should ever see it!), but it was a slog for me until I finished part one. Part of that can be blamed on his intricate world-building. Tarkington pulls no punches in revealing these characters early, and in stark lighting. This makes it hard-going for a while, like eating a watermelon straight through its core. But once you break through, it’s magic.
Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a wonderful American Novel, full of unblissful families, love stories, and (of course) rock and roll. And what’s more American than that?