THE HEART WHISPERER
Author: Ella Griffin
Orion RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Some authors can make you laugh one page and cry the next – the romantic readers among us all have our little list of warm and fuzzy writers that we turn to when we need a comfort read, like Maeve Binchy, Patricia Stanley, Cathy Kelly, Monica McInerney, Sophie Kinsella and so on. Ella Griffin is my latest comfort read. I haven’t read her first book Postcards from the Heart, so I had nothing for comparison when I chose to review The Heart Whisperer; all I had was an enticing blurb and an author quote recommending it as a “funny and moving” read. A spot-on description as it turned out.
When Claire Dillon turns 33, the same age as her mother when she drowned, Claire decides it’s time to grow up and sort out her life. Her mother had everything to live for when she died – a family, a home and a successful medical practice; in contrast, Claire is just cruising through life with no real destination in mind. She’s a floundering actress with a broken heart and a talent for self-sabotage; as she gazes at a photo of her mother, Claire realises that she’s just frittering away her life, yet her mother didn’t even get the chance to live a long life. Deep down, Claire blames herself for her mother’s death. It did happen on her birthday, after all, and if she hadn’t wanted to go to the beach that day …
Her family has never really recovered since her mother’s death. Her father retreated into himself leaving Claire’s older brother Nick to take charge. So much responsibility so young made Nick yearn to escape a suffocating home life and he has spent years in America, building a career and eventually marrying Kelly. Coming back to Dublin has reawakened long-buried memories and catch-ups with Claire and his dad are tense – something to be endured. He’s not the only one who feels that way. So when an accident throws the family together, old hurts and secrets rise to the surface. Will they come to terms with their past or will it drive them further apart? And how will this affect their other relationships?
I had a great time reading this book. There’s a lovely mix of flawed, but genuine characters – we might not be friends with all of them if we met them, but there’s generally something to like about them. Most of them mean well. Claire is a “cruiser”, a messed-up drifter who can’t really make anything stick – jobs, relationships, and so on. She’s not nuts – just mixed up because when she lost her mum, she lost her dad as well. The man who was supposed to be there for her no matter what was there but not there. So she leaned on her brother too much and then he left. No wonder she finds it hard to hold down a relationship. She either leaves first, sabotages the relationship, or chooses someone who’s only in it for the short-term. Not consciously, but that’s my guess. And I’d say the same thing would go for jobs. That way any hurt is minimised. When she meets Richard, she thinks he might be the one, but is her need to “sort life out” clouding her judgement?
Nick, on the other hand, comes across at first as someone who takes himself too seriously; his judgmental nature at times gets in the way of just accepting people as they are – his family particularly. Nick is a “relationship expert” who speaks on the radio, and later, TV. It’s as if he compensates for not having a dysfunctional family by trying to improve others’ relationships. He and Kelly do all these “relationship improving” activities like Two-Listening, Hug Until Close and Complimentition, all of which form part of the We-Fit programme he delivers to couples. These scenes made me laugh – I can just picture Blue Eyes’s face if I suggested them: “Hey, honey, why don’t we go and Two Listen?” The concept is great (you know, listening, hugging and saying nice things to each other), but the way Kelly and Nick – the “perfect” couple – talk makes me giggle. Are people really like that? Seriously?
Claire’s best friend Ray, an ex-rock star with his own commitment issues, is a charmer who ends up having to deal with a significant change in his life without Claire to lean on, while Kelly has her own crises to deal with. And then there’s Shane, a minor character who ends up having a major influence on Claire, Willow with her cute questions and misheard song lyrics, and, of course, Dog. Each minor character contributes to the story, adding depth to the family theme. What is family? Who is my family? It’s a question each of them has to answer over the course of the novel, leading to secrets unveiled, relationships ended and mended, and closing doors to find new opportunities.
Griffin has a fresh, witty voice that is appealing and persuasive. When I laughed, it was more of a wry, shaking my head laughter sprinkled with a giggles, rather than laugh-out loud hilarity. It wasn’t written like a sitcom with madcap characters who get themselves into stupid situations and spend the rest of the book getting themselves out; this was more gentle, an “I’m laughing with you” as opposed to laughing “at you” read. Although, I did laugh out loud at Nick and Kelly’s earnestness at times. In the same way, Griffin teases out responses to the darker emotions the main characters are feeling such as guilt, frustration and heartache; her characters’ responses to issues such as unexpected parenthood, loss, infertility, abandonment and ageing, are honest in their imperfection. And yes, I did cry … but I’m not telling you when.
The upshot is this – Griffin is a great writer and I loved The Heart Whisperer. If you need a comfort read, try this one; it’s as good as hot buttered toast. Available from good bookstores and Hachette Australia. This copy was courtesy of Hachette.
Bookish treat: Hot buttered toast for a warm and satisfying feel.