Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb

Earlier this year, I read a review of my debut novel, Other Words for Love, in which its style was likened to Cures for Heartbreak by Margo Rabb.

Now that I have read this novel, I am truly flattered by the comparison.

At the time, I wasn’t familiar with Cures for Heartbreak but I was immediately interested in reading it—not only because I was curious about the possible similarities to my book, but because I was intrigued by the title.

Pairing the word “cures” with “heartbreak” creates a stark dichotomy that evokes feelings of a sad longing, an agonizing search. It brings to mind an image of a hopeful, glossy magazine ad peddling a remedy for something that, perhaps, cannot be fixed. When I finally began reading Cures for Heartbreak just a few days ago, I realized that finding such a remedy is the dilemma faced by the novel's protagonist, Mia Pearlman.

It’s 1991, and Mia is a fifteen-year-old native resident of Queens, New York. Her mother, who went to the hospital for a stomachache twelve days earlier, has just died from previously-undiagnosed melanoma. If she dies, I’ll die, Mia writes in her journal before her mother is gone.

The story begins with Mia, her father, and her older sister, Alex, in a funeral parlor as they select a coffin. The impact of Mia’s mother’s unexpected death is palpable when Mia and Alex bicker, Mia seems surprised that she is still here when her mother isn’t, and the entire family interacts awkwardly, not sure how to function  now that one of them has left.

In a state of shock, Mia wanders through the aisles of Bloomingdale’s, searching for a dress to wear to the funeral and feeling her mother’s presence beside her while she remembers the many shopping trips they enjoyed together in that store. All the while, Mia thinks: This could not be happening.

But it has happened, and Mia is forced to go on, wishing she had a guide to help her. I’m not sure what I’d been looking for, exactly, she thinks while inside a bookstore. Maybe something like What to Do When Your Mother Dies…and How to Cope When You’re Left Alone with Your Father and Sister, Who Drive you Nuts.

Mia’s father and sister are equally grief-stricken, and they deal with it in their own ways. Alex isolates herself, often reacting with anger and biting sarcasm; Dad tries to retain normalcy, but soon checks out of life for a while. He closes his business, spends endless hours reading the New York Times on his couch, and frequently recounts to Mia the most interesting parts of his day—what he ate for breakfast and lunch. “This morning I had myself a bagel with the no-fat cream cheese, lunch a Wendy’s grilled chicken,” he says, revealing his loneliness through  mundane statements that ring so true.

Mia tries to pick up the pieces by herself. Initially, she goes on a stress-induced junk food binge; then, after her father suffers a health scare, she becomes obsessed with her diet and the fear that she will share her mother’s fate. She grasps at shreds of possible happiness by engaging in typical teenage activities: going to a party; skipping school with a friend; dabbling in romance. But as much as Mia tries to heal, she still feels lost. She constantly questions whether her mother would approve of her outfits and her love interests, and she dreads being alone with the many choices, decisions, and possibilities that stretch out before her. 

And now I was wearing her maroon sweater, her print scarf. I couldn’t keep away from her closets, the mysterious treasure trove of my mother. Each time I creaked open the huge wooden doors my stomach still clenched, as it had when we’d picked out a dress to bury her in.

Eventually, Alex is awarded a scholarship to Cornell, Mia develops a relationship with a young man who has survived cancer, and—to Mia’s and Alex’s dismay—Dad remarries. As time goes on, the now sixteen-year-old Mia finds that the excruciating pain she’d felt after her mother’s death has turned into a chronic condition—a lingering ache that she has managed to survive but will never go away. 

She discovers that although no cure exists, there is still life after heartbreak. As her father’s new wife says: “At first, you’re sad all the time. But then you’re sad occasionally.”

Cures for Heartbreak is a poignant novel about a serious issue which is told in a subtle yet devastatingly emotional way. Mia’s interactions with her father, her sister, her friends, and her romantic interests are a warts-and-all, forthright representation of a teenager’s life. Each character in the story is intricate and imperfect.

Even Mia’s beloved mother isn’t unblemished. Her character is depicted not as a one-dimensional parent, but as a woman who might have been depressed, who might have wanted to marry someone other than Mia’s father, who sometimes lost her patience with her daughter, and who in all likelihood was not satisfied with her life. Mia sees this aspect of her mother from a hazy distance, interpreting clues as to who she really was. An interesting and clever touch is the mention of the books Mia’s mother had read, including Fear of Flying by Erica Jong—a 1970s feminist novel about a wife stuck in an unfulfilling marriage. This suggests Mia’s mother’s possible unhappiness in her own relationship, as well as frustration with the restrictions of the era in which she came of age—which increases the character’s depth and relatability.

Allusions to Mia’s mother’s and grandparents’ experience in Germany during the Holocaust, and the effect this had on them—and consequently, on Mia—adds an even greater understanding of the family dynamic and their collective psyche. This is a critical element of the story, because the past must be considered when trying to comprehend the present. The ramifications of the Holocaust for Mia's family demonstrates how decades-old trauma can trickle from one generation to the next, and how a young person like Mia can unwittingly be touched by events that happened long before she was born.

I stopped seeing the picture in the book and instead saw my family: my grandparents’ eyes when they gazed at my sister and me playing, as if they’d  never seen children do that before. My mother, digging her fingernails into my shoulder when she heard German spoken on the bus. Jamming her tote bag full of food and supplies to be prepared “for anything.” Calling the police after hearing fireworks one August night, waking my sister and me, thinking that New York was being bombed.

Margo Rabb’s writing is at once straightforward and melodious, and she is adept at mixing humor with tragedy. The dialogue is authentic—often sad and frequently funny, it skillfully brings vitality to the characters. Mia's teenage voice is vivid and genuine, especially when she clashes with Alex. 

Rabb creates a sympathetic protagonist in Mia—an intelligent girl doing the best she can to handle a catastrophic interruption of her adolescence, to endure its aftermath, and to make sense of everything. In doing so, she comes to the comforting conclusion that  “Maybe…love is in layers…you can peel back one and the old loves will still be there. More people you love will accumulate on top, but the old ones stay there, and…you can check on them and return to them whenever you want.” 

Mia’s reactions to the events that befall her are brutally honest, such as when she feels embarrassed by the bad luck that has stricken her family. And Rabb adroitly captures the Queens, NY setting as she describes Mia eating Entenmann’s pound cake (a local favorite); riding the 7 train; her neighborhood’s boxy brick houses “…with white cement trim or plastic awnings…”; and the borough’s view of Manhattan’s enticing bright lights.

With references to the seductive poster of Rob Lowe on Mia’s bedroom wall, her steamy fantasies about Matt Dillon, her encounter with Molly Ringwald at Bloomingdale’s, and when Mia says “…an entire Golden Girls convention seemed to be taking place,” Rabb brings the time period to life. 

She also generously shares her personal story of grief and loss (upon which the novel is based) in an afterword that is intensely moving. Even the book’s cover is created with the utmost care. The items that make up the heart: the hiking boots; the thread; the tarot cards—all have meaning in the story.

Cures for Heartbreak is the guide that Mia craves. It is a powerful, beautifully-written, and intelligent novel that will surely connect with, and be a consolation to, readers of any age who have dealt with losing a parent—or with losing anyone.

Book Info:

Title: Cures for Heartbreak
Author: Margo Rabb
Rating: 5/5 stars
Publisher: Random House (Delacorte Press); 2007
Genre: Young Adult Fiction;
highly recommended for both teens and adults.

Author’s website: