Heart Island bobs in cold water, deep within a lake in New York’s Adirondacks. Named for its shape and the family that’s owned it for generations, the private island has one home, a bunkhouse and a secret: a big one, the kind that splinters and yawns, enveloping everyone in its choppy wake.
Oh, the island also has a few ghosts; at least, that’s the family legend. But Lisa Unger’s new novel, Heartbroken, isn’t a ghost story, and it isn’t even really about place or space, but the people who inhabit it.
Heartbroken is a character study in family, many you’ll recognize as your own blood. There is the icy, critical and controlling grandmother who would rather do things the right way by herself than delegate to lesser, poorly qualified mortals. There’s the mother brimming with ambition but long bridled by self-doubt and responsibility. Take your pick of fathers: one distant and dry of love, searching for fulfillment in other places; another affable, devoted and determined to keep his stepdaughter safe, even if it means installing spyware on her computer. The bristling contempt of ex-wives and ex-husbands. And teenagers that are like every teenager you’ve ever known and ever will exist, no further descriptive necessary.
Birdie Heart Burke is the icy grandmother, the matriarch of Heart Island. Every summer, her children and grandchildren come for a week to the island. The vacation is always stained with the assorted dysfunctions of family dynamics, but there are new, disturbing wrinkles this year. Birdie keeps seeing a shadowy man on the island; her husband, needing a break, has taken off for the city; and there’s the matter of her long-dead mother who may or may not have had an affair on a neighboring island.
Kate, Birdie’s daughter, prepares for the visit with dread and foreboding. While she feels the call of the island, and loves it like her mother and children, she looks forward to interactions with her mother as much as she would a double root canal. Like the island, Kate has a secret: She has written and sold a book this year, a novel loosely based on the mysterious journals of her deceased aunt and grandmother. It is, she hopes, the defiant debunking of her mother’s disdainful belief that she’d never done anything important with her life. (“Being a mother is not a job, exactly, is it?” Birdie sniffs.)
Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated story is unfolding on the mainland. A young waitress named Emily, tangled in a dead-end relationship she hasn’t the courage to sever, reluctantly follows her boyfriend into a deadly crime spree that will deposit them on Heart Island at the same time as Birdie’s family. Heartbroken has many storylines, throbbing like capillaries, but Unger’s considerable talents as a weaver connect them seamlessly. The novel is taut and sinewy, fast-moving and riddled with tension.
While some scenes are predictable, the ultimate outcome isn’t, and the book becomes more satisfying as it progresses. There are a few head-scratching oddities of plot (one involving a mysterious and vaguely threatening Facebook friend) that never develop and seem to add pages unnecessarily. And for all Unger’s worldiness — she was raised in Holland, England and (one of these things is not like the other) New Jersey — this is a regional book, solidly New England. Except for its length, it’s a beach read, easily absorbed and engaging. You won’t learn anything from this book, nor will you be up nights pondering its meaning. You’ll just recognize it. It’s all familiar territory: the people, the tension, the threaded and often dumb choices that make up our lives. But to appreciate the beauty of our own messy lives, it helps to gape baldly at others’, and the collisions that take place on Heart Island ricochet nicely and sufficiently entertain. B — Jennifer Graham