Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Made My Heart Beat
Every now and then comes along a book that is so beautifully simplistic and complex at the same time. The story might seem simple at first, but the layers and layers of emotion and consequences make you feel as though you have been bulldozed. My Heartbeat by Garret Freyman-Weyr has a way of grabbing you by the heart and not letting you go.
Ellen loves her brother Link and his best friend James. She is only 14, but she knows she loves James. The three of them are always together, watching old movies, arguing, playing games, you name it. When she moves up to the high school, she gets to see how they are in the world outside their own little bubble. At first she sees them eating lunch on the fire escape and knows how special they are to each other and to her. Then, a classmate asks if they are a couple, and her entire perception of them changes. Are they a couple? What does it mean to her if they are?
After talking to her mother about James and Link's relationship (mom, by the way, was amazing), Ellen took her mother's advice and decided to ask Link and James herself. The answer she got was complicated, messy, and became the downfall of the life together the three of the shared. James answered that yes, they were in fact a couple, but Link immediately disagreed. He proclaimed he was not gay, like James, who had slept with men in the past. When Link left James' house, Ellen knew her question had opened a can of worms that would never be closed again.
Now Link refuses to see or even speak to James, and he starts acting very strange. He lies to his parents about going to Math camp, and instead takes up the piano (James' former piano instruction). He also gets a girlfriend named Polly. Ellen isn't sure what is happening to Link, but she knows she doesn't want to lose James because of it. Since Link starts avoiding her as well, she starts spending more and more time with James until they are finally dating. The relationship between Ellen and James is almost a way to compensate for the fact that they feel they have both lost Link and can fill the void with each other.
James is honest with Ellen about his mixed feelings toward men and women, and he explains he likes the person, not the gender. For Ellen, this time is confusing, and her way to compensate is to read everything she can find on what is confusing her- like what it means to be gay in today's society (all this mixed in with her reading classics her father keeps giving her). While she can't see it, her approach, the logical research, is very much like her father's approach to the possibility Link might be gay. Instead of understanding the emotions (although Ellen does experience those too), both choose to approach the topic with pragmatism. In the end, Ellen's life, as well as the lives of her parents, Link and James, have all been changed, for better or for worse.
This small novella (150 pages) was the most touching and heartbreaking story. Ellen loves her brother and James, and them being gay or not would never change that. Very often siblings are the ones people struggle to come out to (second only to parents) because they are afraid to lose their family, but very often siblings are the ones who would be most fine with the news. Being a sibling is all about unconditional love, and this story illustrates that beautifully. It also shows how two parents can struggle with differing philosophies. Ellen's mom would be fine with Link coming out, but she doesn't encourage it because she knows how her husband feels. Ellen's father is a stereotype-breaker. He is a well-educated and well-traveled man who may suspect his son is gay, but chooses to ignore it or influence him to be straight. He doesn't view "gay" as "normal" which is heartbreaking to bear witness to, especially when he essentially pays Link to date Polly (or at least encourages it monetarily). He loves his son, but if his son were to be gay, Link would somehow be "broken" to him.
The relationship between Ellen and James is the hardest to understand. Through her innocent questions and observation, she clearly knows James and Link love one another as more than friends. But somehow she is still able to have a romantic, and eventually intimate, relationship with James. She isn't even jealous of James' feelings for Link, just accepting. At times, especially in terms of intimacy, it seems as though James feels guilty about his relationship with Ellen, as though he knows he is almost using her as a substitute for Link. But it isn't even as simple as Ellen being a substitute for Link, because James truly seems to love her unconditionally.
This is a fast and short story, but it will leave a piece of itself in your heart by the time you reach the last page. It is written in language that makes it perfect for a low-skilled student. While the language is simple, the content is anything but. This story will give you hours of discussion time because it brings about so many questions with so many possible answers. I was blown away by this book and can't wait to share it with as many people as possible.