The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler
Published: 2013, Simon Pulse
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary, Romance
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They say you can never step into the same river twice. And maybe that's how it was for Papi now, memories shifting and re-forming soundlessly beneath him while the rest of us sat on the shore and watched.
Oh, dear. It appears I may have found a YA contemporary author who does not work for me at all. While I tend to gravitate towards speculative fiction by and large, I’ve found a certain sense of comfort associated with contemporary fiction. Sometimes it’s nice to wrap myself in the more familiar, the more ordinary. Somehow, though, The Book of Broken Hearts simply ended up frustrating and underwhelming me.
Jude Hernendez was supposed to spend her summer before college relaxing, hanging out with friends at the local coffee shop, participating in a community production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, going on a road trip. Instead, she spends her days taking care of her father, who is slowly deteriorating due to early onset Alzheimer’s.
There doesn’t seem much that she and her father can do in the face of his disease, until they discover her father’s old ‘61 motorcycle. Seeing his motorcycle again brings up many memories for her father, and for the first time Jude has hope that they may be able to fight back against her father’s memory loss. Jude decides to devote her time to getting her father’s motorcycle repaired, and, perhaps with it, his memories strengthened. But to do that, Jude needs help. Help which comes in the form of local mechanic-in-training Emilio Vargas, who just happens to have two brothers who broke the hearts of two of Jude’s sisters.
My major complaint with The Book of Broken Hearts is how childish Jude’s narration tends to be, and this is more than just a case of me no longer being a teenager myself. First of all, Jude’s on the older side of YA protagonists, having just graduated from high school. It’s ridiculous that she gives her dog Pancake some narration (which really amounts to nothing more than mentions of squirrels). It’s silly that Jude truly believes in the oath that she and her sisters took years ago, foregoing any contact with the Vargas brothers on pain of death (not literally). It’s saddening that Jude thinks that repairing a motorcycle can become a panacea for her father’s condition (but understandable, I suppose). I can allow for the intense emotional stress to have taken some toll on Jude’s day-to-day maturity, but not to the degree I found within the novel.
The eponymous Book of Broken Hearts is an heirloom that has been passed down to Jude by her sisters. All three of them recorded their relationship woes, most notably those woes related to the Vargas brothers. Two of her three much-older sisters had their hearts broken by two of the Vargas brothers, duly recorded in the book. As a sign of solidarity, the three sisters decided to make a pact against any further involvement with that family. Jude was in the room at the time and also ended up partaking in their blood oath. Although Jude has been the owner of the book for many years, she hasn’t written anything of note. And she’s convinced she won’t until her friendships start breaking, friends unable to empathize with her situation. The only one who can, really, is Emilio Vargas, who Jude knows is off-limits. I suppose the conflict that Jude has between pleasing her sisters and doing what she wants isn’t a bad theme by any means; it’s just that there are so many richer themes to explore in this book that I didn’t see the point of Jude’s intense fixation on the book, the oath, and Emilio.
After all, this is a book about Alzheimer’s. Jude’s father is in his early fifties and was only diagnosed a few months ago, but his condition is steadily worsening to the point that he can no longer work and cannot be left alone. With Jude’s sisters all living away from home and their mother working full time, it falls on Jude to be her father’s caretaker. The relationship between Jude and her father, as she watches him struggle with his memories and sense of self, is where the heart of this story lies. Ockler tries to incorporate a bigger examination of family dynamics, as readers become introduced to Jude’s mother and three sisters, but none of those characters can hold a flame against the relationship that Ockler establishes between Jude and her papi. Frankly, it is quite depressing to read about at times, but the glimmers of hope make the effort of struggling through the hard parts more than worth it. I just want the story to be about Jude and her papi, with perhaps a dash of Emilio thrown in. Is that too much to ask for?
I did like Emilio and the purpose he serves within this novel. Despite the title and the oath, Emilio’s presence is much larger than that of a love interest. As their hired mechanic, Emilio represents the hope that Jude retains that her father’s condition, if not quite irreversible, can at least be lessened. He also proves to be exactly what Jude needs, never trivializing her concerns, always there to comfort her, and there to challenge Jude’s preconceived notions of herself and her wants in life. Essentially, Jude needs Emilio to bring out the best in herself, but not because he’s attracted to her. Rather, Jude’s self-realizations are able to occur because of Emilio’s support as a friend, which is a welcome relief.
Ockler focuses on two distinct Hispanic cultures within her society: Jude’s family is Argentinian while Emilio’s family is Puerto Rican. I studied Spanish in school, and so the knowledge that Ockler’s book focuses on two Hispanic cultures was the biggest draw for me. I liked the inclusion of the Spanish language and parts of Jude’s Argentinian culture (Emilio’s Puerto Rican culture isn’t really discussed), but I found myself wishing for even more. Much of Jude’s culture seemed to be relegated to language and food, which was a shame.
Is this a terrible book? Of course not. I freely admit that I’m a bit picky about what works of contemporary fiction I enjoy reading. Still, I felt as though the romantic aspects and family dynamics of this novel are overplayed. I would have been fine basically focusing primarily on Jude’s relationship with her father. Jude is also a frustratingly immature narrator, which is something that never settles well with me. I can see what other readers have enjoyed in this book, but it’s not for me.
Rating: 2 stars