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The Heartbreaker


The Heartbreaker

Two short years ago, UK author Susan Howatch hit me like a ton of
bricks. An innovative theology professor listed GLITTERING IMAGES
--- the first in her absorbing and provocative "Starbridge" sextet
about personal scandal and political turbulence in the Church of
England --- as primary course reading. Yet no written or oral
assignments on it were required. "Howatch will tell you more about
our church and human nature than any textbook I could find," she
promised, "and you'll enjoy a terrifically good read at the same

That insightful Anglican seminary instructor was more than right;
she was (dare I say it?) prophetic. Being an inter-city bus
commuter, it didn't take me long to crack open that first
magnificent exploration of the inner lives of vocationally
religious people and escape for miles on end into Howatch's unique
world of knowledge and intrigue, set in a semi-rural venue inspired
by the actual environs of Salisbury Cathedral.

By the time next term rolled around a few months later, I had
wolfed down her five companion "Starbridge" volumes, and only the
pressures of increasing coursework in other subjects kept me from
continuing on to her next church-related series --- this time set
amid the frantic secular intensity of central London's business
district. Howatch's latest, THE HEARTBREAKER, is the third of this
set, which independently carries on with the lives and loves of
characters whose roots (and often, salacious secrets) are still
anchored in not-so-fictional Starbridge.

Right off the top, I have to award Howatch full marks in THE
HEARTBREAKER for courage, factual insight and sensitivity, as she
probes the tortuously complex lives of high-stakes urban sex trade
professionals (the British euphemism is "leisure workers") and
their ruthless managers.

As with most of her novels, this story is told in the alternating
first-person voices of two or more principal characters. And here,
two is almost more than enough, for both Gavin (a pampered male
prostitute) and sisterly Carta (who has just found Jesus and wants
to help everyone) lead lives with enough convolutions to keep
half-a-dozen people on the go.

Among those in the vocational "helping professions" (clergy,
psychologists, counselors, social workers, and the like), spiritual
healing is often compared to a long journey, one that begins before
the traveler is even aware of his or her own internal cries for
help. Amid the changes, challenges, betrayals and well-intentioned
emotional blunderings of both Gavin and Carta, Howatch offers the
reader a poignant and suspenseful fly-on-the-wall overview. She
convincingly describes how the dedicated (and often voluntary)
specialists in real parish healing centres patiently work to draw
troubled people out of their emotional and spiritual entrapment and
to face traumatic lifestyle changes upon which their very survival
depends. Some don't make it, and Howatch pulls no punches in
bringing us to a stark realization that her models are only too
prevalent in today's society. (But don't worry...THE HEARTBREAKER'S
ending is typically joyous and forward-looking.)

As with her previous titles, Howatch uses a vast knowledge of the
Church of England (Anglican to Canadians, Episcopal to Americans)
without a trace of self-indulgent pedantry or egoistic preaching.
Her deeply layered characters are truly free to tell their own
stories without tangential interference from an author who is so
clever and passionate, she almost disappears.

The HEARTBREAKER leaves no doubt that Susan Howatch continues at
the top of her form. It's an express train page-turner with the
rare cargo of enormous substance, and I look forward to her next
offering with almost indecent eagerness.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch ( on January 22, 2011

The Heartbreaker
by Susan Howatch

  • Publication Date: April 27, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400041473
  • ISBN-13: 9781400041473