Recommendation for Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker
Lately, I’ve been asking writers I respect if they’ve read anything in the last year that they think everyone should read. A book that, given our limited amount of time on this planet, simply Must Be Read—regardless of whether everyone’s going to like it, learn from it, etc. I’ve been asking this question partly because I have an answer: Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker: a Novel, which broke my heart open in all the right ways.
Why? To explain why I love this novel so much would be reductive: like saying I love my partner because he’s smart, has a good sense of humor, and is willing to clean up after me. These things are true, but as we all know, you can’t quantify love. For the purposes of this recommendation, however, I will attempt to get specific, and list four reasons you should read Heartbreaker. (But before I do: please, please, just read the novel and see for yourself. I promise it will be better that way.)
#1: A recent LitHub article titled “11 Books for Adults Featuring Talking Animals” inspired me to curate a reading list composed of literary fiction that incorporates an animal perspective in a way that’s nuanced, complex, and three-dimensional—novels that let the animals speak for the animal, that get at what Joy Williams really means when she lists “an animal within to give its blessing” as the fourth essential attribute of the story. Claudia Dey’s Heartbreaker was #7 on Lithub’s list; Emily Temple writes: “This novel has three narrators: Pony, a girl; Supernatural, a boy; and Gena Rowlands, Pony’s dog. The three live in the Territory, a place no one leaves—until someone does. It is, as is also true in everyday life, the dog who knows the most about what’s really going on.”
The novel is, indeed, broken into three sections, and told from three perspectives: Billie Jean’s pre-teen daughter, Billie Jean’s dog, and Billie Jean’s teenage lover, who turns out to be her husband’s illegitimate son. The perspectives layer, like a palimpsest or film that’s been exposed twice. We figure out what’s happened—why Billie Jean first fled to and then fled from the Territory—as one perspective builds on another. As Temple explains, the dog’s point of view is crucial, and an important reminder that, while we assume we are alone when spending time with our pets, they are in fact paying attention and we are never, in fact, truly alone.
#2: You might be wondering “what is the Territory?” The Territory refers to the legendary far-northern reaches of Canada, those places you can only reach by driving a hundred miles or so over a frozen lake. The Territory is populated by a cult that settled there in the 1980s. The story takes place as the first generation is exiting middle age; the leader has died (mysteriously, of course); and the cult members have had to improvise to keep the community afloat fiscally (via selling their children’s blood to the outside world). No one comes out. No one comes in. As a consequence, there are plenty of love triangles, love affairs, incest, and illegitimate children. Despite this premise, the people, the place, the compromises, the affairs, and the children have depth and breadth and Dey treats the situation without judgment; she draws us into the community so we can experience it from the inside out.
In a recent Instagram post, Dey writes: “I read many FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] cult survivor accounts when I was writing Heartbreaker. This photograph is from Rachel Jeffs’ ‘Breaking Free.’ The pastel line up of girls, soon to be made wives, under a neutral sun. It is one of the most sinister images I have ever seen. What is left when you are forced to give up your moral and physical agency in the name of God? Lorrie Moore writes: ‘Terrible world. Great sky.’”
#3: My recent reading spree has also, purely incidentally, involved contemporary fiction that focuses on mothers and their estranged daughters, or mothers who estrange their daughters, or mothers who have, with all of the best intentions, done motherhood “wrong,” or mothers who have, without quite meaning to, failed their daughters. I’ve been suffering from work-related stress and indulging in genre fiction, so most of these plots have all of the melodramatic gracelessness of reality television. Most of these mothers were abused, and in turn, become abusers, often of the passive-aggressive sort. Mostly, I (though my own relationship with my mother is, for reasons both personal and systemic, fraught) empathize with these mothers. Mostly, I get angry because I think that reductive narratives of blame and abuse don’t help us daughters, as we try to be both ourselves and mothers in our own rights. Mostly, what I want is story that turns this narrative INSIDE OUT.
The plot of Heartbreaker, for example, hinges on a thirty-three-year old mother who ran away from mostly absent, wealthy parents as a teenager, re-named herself Billie Jean, had a brief but intense love affair with the eighteen-year-old boy Supernatural whose true origins are unbeknownst to her, gets pregnant, has the baby, gives up the baby, deals with some more baby- and lover-related tragedy, and, in utter despair, flees, abandoning her fourteen-year-old daughter, Pony Darlene. (The names! Oh, the beautiful, heartbreaking names!) Later, Billie Jean recounts the story of nearly hitting a bison in the night. “You know the truth when you look into the eyes of something wild,” she concludes.
Despite this technically accurate yet completely misleading and melodramatic summary, Heartbreaker is, in fact, a nuanced exploration of mother-daughter relationships: all of the ways we get it right and get it wrong and have to be willing to start over, again and again.
#4: Advance praise on the dust-jacket of the hardcover includes Leslie Feist, who writes, “I want Van Halen to write the soundtrack and the Coen brothers to make the movie.” Lauren Groff is a “giant fan” of “Claudia Dey’s wild brain” and Sheila Heti says that Heartbreaker gave her “chills all of the way through. “Also,” Rivka Galchen writes, “it has one of the most awesome dogs in literature…”
All of this is true, and all of it is, necessarily, reductive. If I were invited to write an endorsement, I would say, “this novel is for the heartbreakers and the heartbroken, for the new hearts and the old hearts, the hearts we sometimes have to hold together, and the hearts that hold us together. By which I mean: this novel is for EVERYONE. Please read it immediately.”