The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini
Genre: Adult Science Fiction/Fantasy
Release date: November 4 2014
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
The nitty-gritty: Violent, dark, and unexpected, a story about saving the people you love, without destroying yourself in the process.
I took the gun out, a familiar .38 purchased at our local Super Wal-Mart. At first, I kept it under the middle couch cushion and didn’t bring it out for weeks at a time. I’ve since warmed up to the prospect of holding it, watching the light die in the matte finish of the barrel. When you fondle a gun, it starts out cool and warms up, getting friendly in your hands. Hold one long enough and pretty soon, the urge to shoot something takes on a life of its own.
When you see the word “superhero” in a book blurb, you form a certain idea of what kind of story you will be reading. In this case, my expectations turned out to be completely wrong. Venturini has written a different kind of superhero story that surprised me, shocked me, and made me laugh. This story is dark, folks. And I mean dark. Venturini isn’t afraid of pushing people’s buttons, and there are several “trigger issues” in The Heart Does Not Grow Back that will definitely offend certain readers. So fair warning, there is a very disturbing rape scene, as well as numerous acts of bullying that go way beyond your typical school yard variety.
In addition to that violence, there are some upsetting scenes where Dale, who is afflicted (or blessed, depending on your opinion) with the ability to regenerate his limbs and organs, does various things to his body in the name of curiosity, or perhaps science. In other words, squeamish readers may want to stay away from this one.
So you may be asking, Tammy, why did you give this book four-and-a-half stars? The truth is, I really enjoyed the story, and I don’t mind the dark side of fiction at all, so despite a few “ick” moments, it completely pulled me in. Dale is the narrator, and his voice is part of the reason I loved this book. His story begins when he’s in sixth grade, a target for school bullies even then, and gradually he shakes off the role of victim and finds himself in a unique situation: he has a special ability, but he needs to decide whether to use that ability to help others, or to help himself.
Dale is in sixth grade when a boy named Mack saves him from a violent boy named Clint. Dale and Mack become fast friends, and it’s Mack that introduces Dale to two girls who become integral parts of this story, twins Regina and Raeanna. Dale falls for Regina, but one fateful night, after arranging to meet her at a party, Dale’s life changes forever. After a violent encounter with Clint, three of Dale’s fingers are shot off, and he winds up in the hospital.
Dale later wakes up and discovers that his fingers have grown back. This startling occurrence propels him to find someone who can help with a scheme to make some quick cash. Several years later, Raeanna has ended up in her own hell, married to an abusive man name Harold, and Dale spends most of the book looking for a way to pry her out of Harold’s clutches.
But Mack comes back into the picture with a better idea of how Dale should use his gift, and Dale is torn between doing the right thing, or saving Raeanna.
The author does a great job of making Dale a tortured character, much like many other superhero archetypes. He’s the sort of guy who has never really fit in, but his newfound ability changes all that, and forces him into the spotlight. But Dale’s real motivation is a girl, and like so many other superheroes that came before him, he’s bound and determined to sacrifice everything to keep her safe. The real tragedy of Dale’s “power” is that he can never use it to escape the bullies in his life. There are some poignant moments when he wonders if he wouldn’t be better off dead, and it was disturbing to be in his head as he planned out different methods of suicide.
Venturini’s writing is edgy and sharp, and I found so many quotable passages that it was hard to choose just one. Despite the fact that his characters are not the most likable—there are just way too many victims here—there was an underlying sense of hope, and even the ending gives us a glimmer of the happiness that Dale has been looking for. Dale may be wrestling with his conscience over what he should be doing with his superpowers, but he ultimately makes the right decision.
Venturini uses science to plausibly explain Dale’s powers of regeneration—he compares Dale’s ability to the way a salamander can grow its tail back. That’s one reason this book falls under the “science fiction” category for me, because I found myself thinking “Why shouldn’t limb and organ regeneration be possible??”
In the end, it was the tangled and complicated relationships between the characters—Mack and Dale, Dale and Raeanna, Dale and Harold—that kept the story humming along for me. Each character needs to be saved from something, but not all of them want to be saved. But that doesn’t stop Dale, an unlikely superhero, from trying.
Big thanks to Picador for supplying a review copy! Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.
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