Valerie and Tessa might make their homes in the same affluent Boston suburb, but their lives could not be farther apart. Valerie is a single mom, her kindergartner son Charlie the product of a relationship that ended before she could even tell his dad she was expecting a baby. She has worked hard to give Charlie every advantage, putting herself through Harvard Law School, buying a home, and placing him in an exclusive private elementary school. But she knows that no matter how many trappings of suburban success she has managed to amass, she will never quite fit in with the more conventional families whose children attend Charlie’s school. Inevitably she will always feel like an outsider.
Tessa, on the other hand, is part of one of those conventional suburban families. She and her successful surgeon husband, Nick, have two preschool-aged children. She recently quit her job teaching literature at Wellesley College to stay home full-time with her kids, but doesn’t quite find fulfillment in doing arts and crafts, volunteering at school functions, or preparing home-baked goodies. She is dissatisfied with the very life she has strived so hard to create, and can’t quite figure out why.
Valerie’s and Tessa’s lives come together --- in a manner of speaking --- in the wake of a traumatic event. Charlie, attending a slumber party at a friend’s home, accidentally falls into a camp fire and receives serious burns on his face and arm. In the course of a single moment, Valerie’s and Charlie’s lives change forever. And so does Tessa’s, though she doesn’t know it yet.
After Charlie is rushed to Mass General Hospital, his burns are treated by Nick, Tessa’s husband, the area’s premier pediatric surgeon. As Charlie undergoes several rounds of painful surgery and difficult occupational therapy, Valerie and Nick begin spending time together. At first, she convinces herself that he is just being a caring physician. But as Charlie starts to heal and Nick’s interest continues to expand, she realizes that she might be falling for him, too.
Emily Giffin’s earlier work also dealt with issues of romantic loyalty and infidelity; in HEART OF THE MATTER, she continues to explore the complex factors that lead spouses to stray and to consider what constitutes real love, which is often a messy, complicated, waxing and waning thing. Tessa’s and Valerie’s stories are told in alternating chapters (Tessa’s in first person, Valerie’s in third), and Giffin admirably performs the difficult task of making both women --- Tessa genuinely loving but also controlling and suspicious, Valerie vulnerable yet competent --- realistically, humanly flawed yet still sympathetic.
More of a mystery is Nick’s motivations, which, since he doesn’t get the same kind of focused attention as the women, remain largely unexplored. However, the novel isn’t really about Nick; instead, it’s a compelling portrait of both the Wife and the Other Woman, as they circle around their own feelings and failures and try to define what love means in their own lives. Common ground might be hard to find, even in a town as small as Wellesley, but it might just turn out that Valerie and Tessa are simply searching for their own versions of the same elusive thing.
Once again, Giffin has adeptly explored the complicated issues of women’s inner desires and the inner workings of families. HEART OF THE MATTER, with its focus on young families and established marriages, feels like a more mature novel from Giffin. However, fans will be pleased to know that their favorite author continues to bring a fresh perspective and keen sensitivity to the issues that matter most to them.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
Heart of the Matter