Until now, Julian Hale’s life has been punctuated by routine . . . predictable, unremarkable. His relationship with his parents has been equally formulaic. His father, a registered nurse at a local hospital, goes to work, comes home, and largely ignores both Julian and his mother. Thus, Julian is much closer to his mother and spends the bulk of his time at home, often cooking, with her. She has always wanted to be published novelist, and spends her days smoking cigarettes and banging the keys on an old typewriter.
And then one day — with no warning — Julian finds his mother packing her suitcases. She is going to Venice, Florida, she tells him, to manage the small motel her parents own there and finish writing her novel. It will be just a temporary arrangement, she assures him, that will end once her father hires a suitable new manager. But until then, Julian is to remain in North Carolina with his father and finish the school year.
Julian’s father continues to largely ignore him. Within six weeks, he comes home from work and announces that he is going jogging — something he has never done before — and plans to get into shape in order to run a marathon.
Someone has to run the household, so Julian begins preparing dinner for his father each evening, trying out new recipes and gradually becoming quite adept at cooking.
One day when he is in the backyard, he hears “Old Lady Peters” call to him from the other side of the fence, asking for assistance in her yard. Julian has been forbidden from interacting with Mrs. Peters since the day she accidentally rolled her car over his leg, not noticing that he was underneath its carriage retrieving a ball. But after Julian glimpses her yard, he cannot stay away. He begins sneaking next door every morning to assist her with filling her bird feeders and the two of them strike up an unusual friendship.
Steve Cushman has crafted a poignant story of a young man’s transition into adulthood. Julian Hale, at 15 years of age, has led an unremarkable life, believing that if adults were having marital problems, they would yell and argue. But he must suddenly deal with the fact that adult relationships can also be marked by apathy and distance. When his mother suddenly moves to Florida, ostensibly on a temporary basis, Julian must acknowledge that he does not really know his father, who has been aloof and detached from him, as well as his mother, for as long as Julian can remember.
Because the fence separating the Hales’ backyard from Mrs. Peters’ was so overgrown with shrubs, Julian could not see her when she called to him one morning. “Young man, I could use a little help here” turns out to be the simple declaration that opens Julian up to a whole new world. Entering her yard for the first time, and then sneaking over to assist Mrs. Peters every day, Julian begins to learn about birds — their habits, calls, beauty. But Mrs. Peters teaches Julian much more about life and living it with passion through her own example. As they share milk and sugar cookies on her patio, she relates stories about her own life and how she came to love studying and caring for birds. She gently questions Julian about not only his only life experiences, but his parents’, wisely encouraging him to get to know his father better, and develop an understanding of him beyond his role as parent.
“Everyone should have something they are passionate about, something that fills their heart with joy.”Mrs. Peters in Heart With Joy
Julian’s father is portrayed as the typical bread-winner who goes to work each day, comes home, eats dinner, and then passes out either in front of the television or, in this case, in his room playing the same jazz album over and over and over . . . and remains a mystery to his children. Too often, men like Julian’s father never do open up to their children, not knowing how or where to begin. Julian has no idea about his father’s past as a gifted artist, but they gradually begin spending more time together — shopping for groceries, talking while enjoying the delicious dinners Julian prepares nightly — and get acquainted for the first time. It is a sweet and tentative relationship, marred only by the proverbial elephant in the room: The absence of Julian’s mother, who calls twice each week to speak with Julian. Julian notices that, as time passes, her parents are spending increasing amounts of time on the telephone after Julian hands the receiver to his father. But will she return to them or remain in Florida?
Eventually, Julian is able to talk with his father about whether or not he wants Julian’s mother to come home to them and he helps his father devise a plan to lure her back, still unaware of the final catalyst for her departure. And before he knows it, the school year is over and the time has come for Julian to travel to Florida for his much-anticipated visit with his mother. Initially, he planned to leave when school let out for the summer and never return to North Carolina. But in the interim, his relationship with his father has blossomed.
Julian’s mother, like his father, has unfulfilled artistic dreams. Unlike his father, she has never abandoned her quest, sitting down daily in front of her old typewriter for at least the past four years, bent on completing a novel. She mumbles to herself about her writing and leaves notes strewn about the house upon which she has jotted plot points and bits of dialogue. Although she has maintained a close, loving relationship with Julian, she has also shielded him from many of the details of her own and her husband’s lives. To her credit, she recognizes, though, that Julian is no longer a child and risks telling him the truth in order to help him understand how their lives led them to their current state of separateness.
And Julian is a memorable character because he is such a typical 15-year-old young man, replete with insecurities, inquisitiveness, and sensitivity. In his budding romance with Tia, the grocery store clerk who shares his passion for cooking, Julian is sweetly credible, and his anger about his mother’s departure and his father’s initial reticence to discuss it is believably heart-breaking. Julian’s reluctance to admit to his friend either that he is helping “Old Mrs. Peters,” as the boys have referred to her up to that time, or his interest in culinary arts elicits empathy and painful memories of adolescence. But by the end of the story, Julian has grown immeasurably and become empowered to continue pursuing his dreams. As is so often the case, he models behavior that his parents end up emulating, such that you will find yourself cheering for the Hale family and, as you read the last page and close the book, imagining how their lives will unfold from that point forward. You will not soon forget Julian and his parents.
Heart With Joy is an easy read that moves at the pace of life, like the ocean waves crashing on the shore of the Florida resort where Julian’s mother is living. Cushman relates that it took him six years, on and off, to write it, and that it went through several revisions on the way to publication. The time and effort shows in its thoughtfulness, economy of language, and pure emotional impact. Cushman depicts Julian’s growing awareness of how difficult marriage can be and appreciation of his parents as distinct individuals with their own hopes and dreams sans overwrought emotional scenes or implausibly dramatic plot devices. And that is the book’s real strength. Heralded as a “coming of age” story, it is a deeply affecting tale about growing up and learning to accept and forgive those we love because they are, like us, flawed. And a reminder that in order to be really happy, we need to focus our energy on activities and interests about which we care deeply. Mrs. Peters is absolutely right: “Everyone should have something they are passionate about, something that fills their heart with joy.” I look forward to reading more of Cushman’s work.
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Wednesday, October 20, 2010, at 11:59 p.m. (Pacific time)
The winner will be selected at random!
I read Heart With Joy in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Heart With Joy free of charge from the author. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Heather Henderson was selected at random as the winner!
Thanks to all who participated in the giveaway!