Book Review: Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

Don’t be fooled by this cover. While it does have a romance subplot, this is a novel about grief and loss and family and not just a teenage love story. 
Heartbeat - Elizabeth ScottHeartbeat
by Elizabeth Scott

Published: January 28th 2014 by Harlequin Teen

Source: ARC from publisher

Synopsis (Goodreads): Life. Death. And…Love?

Emma would give anything to talk to her mother one last time. Tell her about her slipping grades, her anger with her stepfather, and the boy with the bad reputation who might be the only one Emma can be herself with.

But Emma can’t tell her mother anything. Because her mother is brain-dead and being kept alive by machines for the baby growing inside her.

Meeting bad-boy Caleb Harrison wouldn’t have interested Old Emma. But New Emma-the one who exists in a fog of grief, who no longer cares about school, whose only social outlet is her best friend Olivia-New Emma is startled by the connection she and Caleb forge.

Feeling her own heart beat again wakes Emma from the grief that has grayed her existence. Is there hope for life after death-and maybe, for love?

My thoughts: I picked up this book because I had noticed several friends on Goodreads had rated it 4-5 stars and I knew it was being published at the end of the month. I may have read the synopsis at one point, but I wasn’t really thinking this was going to be a big, emotional read for me. I was expecting a slightly issue-y contemporary YA romance.

Boy, was I wrong. This book reached inside of me and pulled out lots of feelings I’ve spent the better part of 15 years trying to ignore. Several recent lunch breaks ended with me trying to blink back tears. When I finally sat down to finish it, I cried so much my eyes were still swollen the next morning, even after 7 hours of sleep. I could barely put on mascara.

I still really enjoyed this book, despite all the tears. It was cathartic for me, and it was well-written and had a touching story. I don’t think it will be a perfect match for every reader, but I will whole-heartedly suggest it to readers who are looking for a nice balance between grief and romance.

Emma’s mom was reaching for a piece of toast, and then she was dead. Because she was pregnant and the fetus is still viable, Emma’s dad chooses to keep her on life support—without consulting Emma. Every day, Emma visits the hospital to see her mom, whose definitely dead but still breathing. Emma’s life is on hold as she struggles in a state of suspended grief. She feels abandoned by her stepfather and resentful of the baby.

And I knew exactly what she felt like.

I see what grief does, how it strips you bare, shows you all the things you don’t want to know. That loss doesn’t end, that there isn’t a moment where you are done, when you can neatly put it away and move on.

When I was a young teenager, my father had a heart + lung transplant. It happened much earlier than was expected, so I ended up being the only one with him at the time of the operation. For a couple of days I was alone while he underwent a nearly 24-hour operation and then was unconscious for several days. Every couple hours I got five minutes with him, and he died without me being able to say goodbye.

The majority of the book takes place in the hospital, and each scene conjured memories of my own time spent with a family member who was only alive with the help of machines. I’m not really able to objectively review the book because of this intense emotional response, but I’m going to try.

Emma was a high-achieving teenager who was only focused on getting perfect grades and acceptance into an elite university. When her mother dies, all of her goals seem trite and superfluous.

I think a lot of teens can have an experience like this, even if it isn’t as dramatic as Emma’s mother’s death. Sometimes life sneaks up and kicks you in the mouth, and you end up with a bloody lip and a new perspective. The scale on which you judge meaning expands.

Ultimately, that’s what Emma’s story is about; a painful experience ultimately helps her figure out what really matters to her and who she is. It’s a classic story arc, and Scott does an amazing job of taking a very specific experience told from a very specific point of view and making it feel more universal.

Under the idea that we can all make our own fates, that we have choices, is the reminder that sometimes we don’t. That sometimes life is bigger than our plans. Bigger than us.

Though the cover is likely what prompted me to assume this was a very romance-heavy book, the love story really took a back seat to the grief and family issues in the book. Still, the romance was nicely developed. Caleb wasn’t the type of boy Emma usually noticed, even if he was cute. While the way they meet and the circumstances that bring them together feel rather contrived when I step back and evaluate them from a plot standpoint, the convenient backstory didn’t come off as cheesy on the page. The emotional connection Emma and Caleb form felt earnest, and details like her reaching to touch his hair didn’t come off as trite.

Emma is rather self-aware for a teen, and the close, first person narration is very frank. This approach doesn’t make Emma all that sympathetic or endearing. She’s selfish. She’s bitter.

And that’s what makes you angry. What makes you hate. You don’t want to believe that sometimes bad things happen just because they do.

She’s a teenager. And she’s just experienced a terrible loss. It doesn’t bring out the best in her. Scott doesn’t try to shove some sort of lesson into this grief story, unless it’s just the plain truth, which is that sometimes life sucks and you just have to find a way to move on.

This isn’t a book that will work for everyone, but it was a story that would have resonated with my teenage self. It’s a quick read that isn’t bogged down by unneccessary or underdeveloped subplots happened to strike the right emotional chord to resonate with me.

Recommended for fans of:

This might work for fans of Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life (review here)Zarr’s plotting is more sophisticated and has a much better sense of place, but they both have a prickly narrators and deal with the same issues of grief, resentment, and selfishness.

I’d also suggest it to fans of When You Were Here by Daisy Whitney (review here). While it has a quest plot that Heartbeat lacks, the narrators both have a similiar tone.

Second opinions:

April at Good Books Good Wine: “Elizabeth Scott does a superb job with Emma and her voice in Heartbeat.”

Anna Reads: “It’s a tough read, for sure, but it’s balanced out by a sweet romance. Emma and Caleb both need to heal, and they can help each other do that. There’s some friendship issues, too, but three cheers for Olivia for being a book bestie who doesn’t suck.”

Estelle at Rather be Reading: “I do think Heartbeat is a very discussion worthy novel because of all the shades of gray it presents. Was Dan right in his decision? Is Emma being selfish? How do you figure out what the deceased wanted without second guessing yourself? There’s so much that’s intriguing here and the chemistry between Emma and Caleb is great but, in the end, Heartbeat just didn’t have the emotional impact I was expecting.”


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