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A major new novel from the author of the international bestseller The People’s Act of Love
Ritchie Shepherd, aging former pop star and wildly successful producer of a reality teen talent show, is starting to trip over the intricacy of his own lies. Gallingly, his sister, Bec, a scientist developing a crucial vaccine, is as addicted to truth-telling as Ritchie is to falsehood. Ritchie relies on her certitude even as he seethes with resentment. A devastating chain of events is set into motion when Bec tells her fiancé, Val, a powerful tabloid editor, that she can’t bring herself to marry him after all. Val has set himself up as the moral arbiter of the nation, which will turn out to be impeccable camouflage for an elaborate revenge plot intended to destroy Bec by exposing the people who are close to her—which now include Alex, a brilliant researcher in gene therapies who is so desperate to have a family of his own that Bec finds herself willing to lie and cheat in order to get him what he wants.
The Heart Broke In is a novel about everything that matters to us now. Rich and compendious, its themes include but are not limited to: children, celebrity, secrets and shame, the science of immortality, falls from grace, acts of terror, the widening gap between rich and poor, the death of privacy, the unbridled rise of tabloid culture, invisible heroism, and the wonderful, terrible inescapability of family. A big-hearted epic in the manner of Tolstoy, it’s also as shrewd, starkly funny and of-the-moment as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom or Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. Most of all, it is a staggeringly good read, fiction with the reverberating resonance of truth.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.12(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
James Meek is an award-winning journalist and novelist whose books include The People’s Act of Love and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The story doing the rounds at Ritchie Shepherd’s production company was accurate when it appeared inside the staff’s heads, when they hardly sensed it, let alone spoke it. It was like a faint stink, clear enough to notice, too trivial to mention. All through Teen Makeover’s autumn and spring seasons, when they clustered around Ritchie, asking him questions they already knew the answers to, cadging compliments and begging him to give their enemies a telling-off, they watched him. They saw he wasn’t as funny as before. Was he keeping his jokes for someone else? He moved in a weird way now, they thought. He walked with an awkward bounce, too eager, as if he reckoned something had given him extra energy, or made him younger.
As long as the rumor was unspoken, the hearts of the staff ached. The rumor was this: that after a long peace Ritchie was, once again, cheating on his wife, Karin, this time with an underage girl. They felt sorry for Ritchie’s family, but what if the damage went further, to the men and women on the company payroll? They sensed a personal threat. Scandal spread from the first carrier. Everybody liked Ritchie, but they were confident that he was selfish enough to infect them all. The production company offices were intoxicated by nervousness and suspicion. When twin fourteen-year-old girls showed up one day without an accompanying parent and asked for Ritchie, his PA, Paula, got up too suddenly from behind her desk, caught the trailing edge of a printed e-mail with her thigh, and upended a cup of coffee across her skirt. The chief lighting technician wrote off a fresnel worth two thousand pounds. He dropped it from the bridge when he saw Ritchie smile and touch the elbow of a lanky year ten in a short dress. “She had womanly curves earlier than most” is what the gaffer would have said in his defense, if he hadn’t been afraid to hex them all, and he only yelled “Butterfingers!” while the people down below were jumping clear of chips of lens skittering across the floor. When the script editor saw Ritchie talking to a group of pert-bottomed schoolgirls in leotards she strode over and interrupted him in mid-sentence. She realized, as soon as she did it, that she was making a fool of herself. The girls’ teachers were there. The ache of fear in her heart had made her do it.
The ache could be soothed only by being put into words. The production team needed an utterance to lift the dread from their chests, and when the rumor eventually found its spoken form, it relieved them so completely that they believed it. Much better that Ritchie’s ten-year marriage to Karin should break up and that he should lose custody of his son and daughter over the pretty but older-than-twenty-one new presenter Lina Riggs than that the boss should be doing something illegal and shameful, something that would stain them all with the indelible dye of an unspeakable word. Without anyone noticing the shift, “I wonder if” and “I bet” and “You don’t suppose” changed to “I heard” and “I’ve got a juicy one” and “I know who Ritchie’s shagging.” Believing soothed them all.
Ritchie found that whenever he went near Riggsy a stupid smile appeared on his employees’ faces. He didn’t know how happy he was making them by encouraging them to believe he was betraying his family with a legal adult. They didn’t know that their rumor had become wrong as soon as it was said out loud, and that the original rumor, the ache of fear in their hearts, was true. They didn’t know that Ritchie was seeing a not-quite-sixteen-year-old girl he’d met when she appeared on Teen Makeover the previous season. He saw Nicole once a week. It was his intention to enjoy it for as long as he felt like it, then end it tenderly. Nicole would, he imagined, be moved that he should voluntarily give her up. It would be soon, and nobody would have found out. How could they? The two of them were careful, and London was a wild forest of red brick and roof tiles, where maps only reminded you how little you knew.
Copyright © 2012 by James Meek
Reading Group Guide
James Meek's fiction calls to mind the inventive storytelling power of contemporary luminaries ranging from Jennifer Egan to Jonathan Franzen. With The Heart Broke In, Meek brings us an epic for our time, melding topics such as gene therapy, tabloid journalism, and the search for solace in an alienating world.
Within these intricately crafted chapters, brother and sister Ritchie and Bec Shepherd lead vastly different liveshe's as addicted to trickery as she is to honestywhile they come to terms with the death of their father at the hands of a Northern Irish terrorist years ago. An aging pop star and reality show producer, Ritchie begins to realize that his lies are catching up with him. Bec divides her time between Tanzania and her laboratory in England, where she dedicates her life to finding a vaccine against malaria. Ritchie and Bec's divergent paths are about to become united at the hands of Alex Comrie, a scientist who once served as the drummer in Ritchie's band, and Val Oatman, the editor of a powerful, sensational newspaper. As the self-appointed conscience of the nation, Val orchestrates a plot that will bring to bear everything that matters to us now: children, celebrity, secrets and shame, the quest for youth, loyalty and betrayal, and the wonderful, terrible inescapability of family.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of James Meek's The Heart Broke In. We hope they will enrich your experience of this shrewd and starkly funny novel.
1. The Heart Broke In explores universal questions from many perspectives. Woven together, what do the novel's dilemmas tell us about the freedoms and challenges of life in the modern world? Which characters and storylines had the greatest impact on you? What decisions would you make if you were confronted with one of the novel's crises?
2. How do Ritchie's feelings about his family shift throughout the novel? Ultimately, what does he want from women?
3. In a July 2012 interview with Publishers Weekly, the author described Alex as "a gene therapist, obsessed with his own personal place in evolution." How do Alex and his family "evolve" emotionally? How does Alex's work reflect his quests in his personal life?
4. How is Bec's approach to science different from Alex's? Does the search for a malaria vaccine offer a form of healing to Bec as well? How does her quest for motherhood mesh with the other aspects of her identity?
5. Matthew's approach to morality is rooted in the threat of eternal damnation. For those who oppose him, how should our moral compass be set? How do the nonbelievers among the characters determine the difference between right and wrong?
6. How do Bec and Ritchie cope with the knowledge that their father was killed by a Northern Irish terrorist in an act of self-sacrifice? How did you react to O'Donabháin's poem (chapter 54, pages- 290–91)?
7. What did Harry want his legacy to be? Does his view of the world make you feel inspired or wary? Do you share his enthusiasm for longevity?
8. Do Val and Alex possess any similar traits? How do the two men reflect different stages of Bec's life?
9. Did Harry reject Matthew's religion simply because it seemed illogical, or because it was also a threat to Harry's power? How does Rose resolve her conflicted feelings about her father's message? What irreconcilable differences are part of your family's history?
10. What makes it difficult for Dougie to find long-term fulfillment? Is Bec a force of joy or of suffering in his life?
11. Discuss the role of fame in the novel. Was there much reality in Ritchie's reality TV show? As Ritchie sings his own song at a karaoke bar in a closing scene, what does he discover about himself, and about the world of entertainment?
12. Val and the Moral Foundation use a variety of unsavory methods to dig up dirt on celebrities. As the characters fall victim to blackmail, are their "crimes" truly worth exposing? How does the Moral Foundation define morality? How far should a journalist be able to go when conducting research? How much privacy does a celebrity deserve?
13. The novel's title can be read multiple ways. How would you apply it to characters whose hearts were "broken in," losing their newness or innocence? If you read it as "the heart committed a burglary," what did the heart steal from the various characters? How can the title be read in terms of biologythe heart as supplier of blood (life)?
14. Discuss the novel in the context of James Meek's previous works that you have read. How do his characters find solace in situations that threaten to dehumanize them?
Reading Group Guide written by Amy Clements/The Wordshop, Inc.
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