Book Review: ‘The Book of Broken Hearts’ by Sarah Ockler

The Book of Broken Hearts (Image Credit: Sarah Ockler)

The Book of Broken Hearts (Image Credit: Sarah Ockler)

With young adult fiction currently being dominated by dystopian and paranormal genres, it’s easy to forget the simple pleasure of reading a contemporary YA story with realistic characters dealing with realistic issues. Thankfully there are a handful of talented authors who keep plugging away at the contemporary genre, including The Book of Broken Hearts author Sarah Ockler. Ockler’s latest novel is a testament to the power of nuanced storytelling and believable characters. It’s one thing to be able to relate to a girl who is responsible for saving her dystopian city or preventing demons from taking over the planet…it’s another thing entirely to relate to a girl who is just living her life, doing things you do, and dealing with issues you can truly sympathize with.

In The Book of Broken Hearts, that girl is Jude, a first generation American whose parents emigrated from Argentina before she was born. Jude is the baby of her family, with three substantially older sisters who are all out on their own. Jude remains at home with her parents, and she is spending her final summer before college caring for her father, who has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Though he’s only in his early 50s and looks healthy as can be, his mind is failing him, and Jude can’t bear to watch. In a last ditch effort to save her father from “El Demonio,” Jude arranges to have a local mechanic help them fix up his vintage Harley, since his biking days are the one thing Jude’s father seems to always remember clearly.

So where, exactly, does the book of broken hearts come in? The mechanic, Emilio, happens to be the youngest brother in a family with a history of betraying Jude’s sisters. Her sisters made her swear, in a blood oath, never to get involved with a member of the Vargas family, and it’s documented in a book passed along from sister to sister. Not only does Jude break the oath by hiring Emilio, she breaks it even more every day by falling for him.

The Book of Broken Hearts essentially allows the reader to follow Jude throughout the summer and see how she is impacted by the changes in her father, her fledgling relationship with Emilio, and the various family politics that come into play when her sisters swoop in to help. Ockler does an amazing job of showing what it’s like having a loved one with Alzheimer’s and eliciting the helpless feeling that goes along with seeing the disease progress.  I’m not generally an emotional reader, but my heart broke for Jude and her family on more than one occasion. People are living with these issues every day, and seeing the extent to which it impacts one teenage girl really puts it in perspective.

While the book certainly deals with some heavy topics and emotions, it also has several moments of sheer joy. It’s a treat to see the relationship between Jude and Emilio unfold – I feared the oath would be an ongoing roadblock, but it ended up being just one more layer in Jude’s family’s complex history. At first glance it might look like this book is all about the oath and the relationship between Jude and Emilio. Certainly that’s an important part of the story, but the bigger picture is Jude’s family life. It was nice to see how seamlessly the romantic storyline was mixed in, crossing over in all the right places. I also loved the little details that made Jude real to me – her love of Friday Night Lights #33 Tim Riggins, her tendency to refer to the items in her house based on how they were explained on the post-its meant for her confused father, and of course her insights into the mind of the family dog, Pancake.

As with pretty much any book with a teenage main character, there were definitely times I got frustrated with Jude. She seemed to learn a lesson, then something (admittedly traumatic) would happen and she’d be back where she started. While I started to get a bit impatient with her toward the end, this cycle did set up a very appropriate resolution scene that brought closure for both Jude and me as a reader. I appreciate that, while there was a definite sense of closure, not every loose end was tied up.  Just like real life, it’s unlikely that all your problems will disappear simultaneously. Taking care of a big issue doesn’t mean the small ones aren’t still there, but Jude learns how to go about her life despite those stressors, which is a great example for any reader, teenage or not.

Reading The Book of Broken Hearts feels very much like reading from Jude’s diary – we follow along with a couple months of her life, and they just so happen to be a very important couple of months. I really have a soft spot for this type of storytelling, mainly because it can be so challenging to do it effectively. Sarah Ockler really has a knack for capturing characters in their daily struggles and making an engaging story out of those ups and downs.

Ockler’s previous novels, Bittersweet, Twenty Boy Summer, and Fixing Delilah, have a similar slice-of-life approach, and I loved all of them – especially Bittersweet. But The Book of Broken Hearts really shows Ockler’s growth as an author, and her ability to tell an emotionally riveting coming-of-age story certainly rivals that of YA’s most-beloved contemporary author, Sarah Dessen.  If you’re the sort of reader who prefers the real world to a dystopian future or immortal characters (and even if you’re not), I urge you to check out The Book of Broken Hearts, or any other Sarah Ockler books you can get your hands on.

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Mallory Walker
I spend too much time reading and watching TV. Puppies, Diet Coke and the ’90s make me happy. I mean really, who doesn’t love the days of Marky Mark?
Check out more from Mallory Walker on TDQ…

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