Heart and Soul
I’ve wavered several times on what grade to give this book. It’s a quick and easy read with a likable heroine but the content is depressing and I’m not sure there’s enough substance to make it worth its hardcover price.
Bess Stallone (no relation to Sylvester) is our narrator and heroine. She is a working class girl from Rocky Beach, Long Island, New York. The daughter of a fireman and a housewife, Bess was raised to expect a similar situation for herself. Then, at a school recital when she’s eleven years old, she hears a fellow student plod through “The Happy Farmer” by Robert Schumann and she discovers her passion: music. She begins to skip gym class to sneak into the music room and try to recreate the music. Soon caught by the music teacher, she is given lessons to train her natural talent. Bess, despite the odds, eventually makes it into Julliard and is well onto her way to becoming a concert pianist. Only there’s one teeny tiny problem: when Bess has to perform in front of anyone for any reason, she faints, and continues to pass out until she can get away from the stage.
Bess has tried everything: drugs, meditation, therapy. Nothing works. Sit down to perform and bam, out cold. She’s about to give up on her music, figuring she can always teach. Then she’s approached by David Montagnier, a famous pianist who’s crossed the cultural divide from classical artist to pop culture icon. He is best known for his dual piano performances, but his partner has recently retired and he’s on the lookout for a new one. He’s impressed by Bess’s playing and invites her to audition. He knows her problem, but he doesn’t care, he must have her, so they work and work until she’s ready. It seems as though all of Bess’s dreams have come true, but David has secrets and problems of his own that may destroy them.
As I said, I enjoyed Bess. She’s down-to-earth and passionate and most importantly a fighter. Bess talks about giving up, but she never does. She’s a survivor. As a narrator, Bess is intriguing, with her sarcasm and salty language. Alas she’s also very limiting as a story device. When a problem comes up, Bess’s first reaction is to go into denial. That’s very realistic, because we often don’t focus on unpleasant things that don’t effect our lives directly. Realistic, but too narrow for the story being told. The reader doesn’t get a full picture of what’s going on because the narrator is ignoring what’s happening around her. If the narrator won’t see it, how can the reader? In the end it makes the story simplistic and choppy.
Back on the plus side, the story involves many unique characters, including Bess’s apparently fragile sister, who may be stronger than Bess herself. Then there’s their mother “Mumma,” who is forced to get a job and finds her spirit and backbone, and their firefighter father, with whom Bess has an antagonistic relationship. She loves him despite the pain he causes her. Also introduced is Bess’s best friend Pauline, with a flair for the dramatic and clairvoyant flashes about things she cannot prevent. Pauline loves Jake, whose heart belongs to Bess. Jake is her closest friend and her support, but he can’t hold her once she meets the enigmatic David.
David is the most important character in the story besides Bess, but he never comes alive for the reader. We are given hints about his past, his problems, and the reasons for the tragedy at the book’s climax, but we never know David. We see his jealousy, his possessiveness, and his flightiness, but we never know him. It may be a metaphor for how Bess never really knew him, either, but it leaves a reader frustrated.
And that’s a problem, because the core plot of the book revolves around David. In the course of their tumultuous relationship, Bess and David must deal with some very grave, painful issues. The fact that David remains enigmatic frustrated me and made me wish that these issues had been granted more serious treatment.
So do I recommend Heart and Soul? Yes, but it’s a very qualified recommendation. First, I’d say wait for paperback. The quantity and quality of story is very iffy for the hardcover price. The writing style flows well and allows the story, with its deeper themes of love, passion, and madness, to seem light, helping the reader digest the depressing the content. But most importantly, Bess is a character the reader can identify with, but she confines the story to a very narrow point of view that may leave the reader wishing that the subject matter had been treated with greater depth.