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 lives—he’s as addicted to trickery as she is to honesty—while 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.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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?
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 him- self, 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 biology—the 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?
JAMES MEEK is an award-winning writer whose novels include The People’s Act of Love and We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. He lives in London.