In Heartsick, journalist and assistant head of content at Mammamia, Jessie Stephens goes undercover in search of the truth about heartbreak. Inspired by her own relationship breakdown and a search for a “book that [she was] fairly certain [didn’t] exist” which could “put into words how [she was] feeling”, this debut work of narrative non fiction looks at the concept of heartbreak by examining three real life stories told to the author in interviews.
Each subject is presented under a false name, and in circumstances where memory fails or more detail is needed, Stephens has embellished though she says “I do not invent plot and I have done my best not to invent feelings. Where human memory has left gaps, I’ve filled the story with colour that seems to fit.” Perhaps, then, this is problem with Heartsick.
As a book about people’s deep range of romantic feelings, from love to loss and all that comes with it, Heartsick should be moving and profound. Instead, it varies between being clinical and overly florid in its approach. The three subjects, called Claire, Ana and Patrick are varied in their situations, and their stories are braided together, each told a bit at a time. They do not mirror each other structurally, with Patrick’s told in a linear fashion, and Claire’s and Ana’s starting with a point closer to the present before jumping back to the start of the burgeoning drama. Each person’s sections are short and sometimes they are too short to have much impact.
I found myself unable to connect with Ana or Claire, though some online reviews I have read say that Ana was the most sympathetic of the piece. Personally, I was more drawn to Patrick’s story. A university student based in Perth (although some of the geography was confusing to me as a local as I read on, such as a decision to meet outside the Brass Monkey in order to eat on Barrack Street).
Patrick meets Caitlin when they are put in the same group for an assignment and is drawn to her immediately, only to find that she has a boyfriend already. It’s clear to the reader from the start, however, that Caitlin likes Patrick too as she keeps seeking him out, complains about her partner constantly, and texts Patrick at weird times of the night. Caitlin’s manipulative and self destructive behaviour is mesmerising to Patrick. I think Stephens did a really great job of considering the kinds of things a twenty-something year old male thinks about, but the book tells its story rather than showing it. The overall effect is like reading a two hundred page case study or the examples in an exam booklet rather than a narrative.
Stephens’ own involvement in the book is somewhat strange too; though her own relationship was part of the impetus for the story, she talks about her heartbreak only in the beginning and end of the book as caveats to her interviews. Why say this book is inspired by my heartbreak, and then explain that of three strangers?
None of the perspectives offer much in the way of life lessons, and this leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions – that life is sad? That you can’t always get what you want? That heartbreak is inevitable? The ultimate conclusion of the book isn’t clear on that.
Despite this lack of focus, the book is framed by both an Introduction and a Preface (one or the other would suffice) and ends with an Epilogue and an essay On Romantic Rejection. These demonstrate that the ideas behind the book are strong, and that there is a need for more books which examine the not so happy endings in life, and don’t hold romantic partnerships up to be the thing that completes us as humans.
But Heartsick will not be this year’s answer to Three Women or even the next Eat Pray Love. It is too long and the concepts are not tightly handled. The book never quite lands, and perhaps would have been better suited as an article or an interview series.