Friday, August 9, 2013

Heft by Liz Moore

Heft was not quite what I expected. It was even better. A “colossally fat” former professor has not been outside his home for years. He has everything he needs delivered. His primary pleasure is eating. Twenty years early he met a student he felt a great kinship with. Their loneliness drew them together: “I sensed her loneliness the moment she walked into my classroom, & I thought it likely that she could sense mine, although I tried to shield her from it.” (p. 28) Circumstances cause her to leave school and him as well, but they maintained a correspondence for 18 years. 

One day out of the blue she calls him and tells him she is going to send him a letter. What she sends him is a photo of the son she never told him she had. Divorced, she is worried about her son and thinks a relationship with Arthur will help him. She wants them to meet. Thus begins a chain of events that are played out in the novel. Arthur calls a maid service so he is not ashamed to have Charlene and her son Kel over. The maid, Yolanda, then becomes woven in to the fabric of Arthur’s life. (The descriptions of the book I’ve seen do not even mention her, which is a real omission.) 

The book is told alternately by Arthur and Kel. Each has a distinct voice. Neither is a trustworthy narrator, and yet you sense their essential honesty and wait for them to reveal the truth. They both felt like real people to me.  

Heft has a lot to say about loneliness and making connections. It started slow, but once the story got moving I wanted to know what happened next. I listened to most of it on audiobook on a long trip, and I couldn’t wait to get back in the car to hear more. The book surprised me, both with plot twists and with the depth of the characters. The relationships are complicated and unexpected. Characters tell each other lies and it's so believable, the way the lies are told and the reasons for them.  

Kel is the kind of person who makes friends easily and becomes the leader of any group, yet even he can feel awkward and out of place. His mother gets a job at a prestigious high school so Kel can attend, and Moore perfectly captures his shame and horror his first day when he is wearing the “wrong” clothes. She captures the shame and horror Arthur feels over his weight. 

The author has a lovely way with words. There were many passages that were just a pleasure to read. For example, when Arthur receives the photo of Kel, he thinks (p. 52): "I can tell he's a dreamer. He fears things. The death of his mother, perhaps, or his own death. Disobedience. Authority. He is trustworthy but doesn't trust others. In his heart there is bravery & cowardice. He is a baby & a man. His face is a boy's face. His face is a crystal ball. I am sure that other pictures of him show him smiling. I am sure that several girls have pictures of him smiling & that sort of thing. I am sure that several girls have pictures of him without his knowing it." 

I thoroughly enjoyed the way Yolanda and Arthur conversed. I felt like I was eavesdropping on two people working their way into friendship. Once, when Yolanda is upstairs cleaning, her phone rings. Arthur guiltily picks it up and sees that the call is from “Junior Baby Love.” Junior is Yolanda’s no-good boyfriend and the father of her unborn child. After that, Arthur refers to him as Junior Baby Love (or, occasionally, JBL) which cracked me up and never got old for me. (The narrator on the audiobook, Keith Szarabajka, was especially good at disdainfully repeating “Junior Baby Love.”) 

Heft is about loneliness and the burdens we all carry. Sad things happen, but overall it is a hopeful book. Arthur is unsure about his relationships:
"In a fit of sentimentality & self-pity, I asked [Yolanda] today if she would let me meet the baby after it was born and she asked if I was firing her. I took this as a very good sign." (p. 350) Arthur is honest about himself, his failings, his weight, and his relationships, but he is also hopeful. 

Some people might be dissatisfied with the ending of Heft, but I loved it. It allowed me to imagine what will happen next. Although Heft is not classified as a young adult novel, I think many teens would enjoy it. I recommend Heft to readers who enjoy immersing themselves in the lives of characters who feel real, who have ever felt lonely, or who have struggled with personal burdens. In other words – all readers.

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