Comfortably Numb – Heart Throb by Suzanne Brockmann
Okay, I tell the same joke more than once, that’s a theme, right? In which case I’ll begin by saying that if Heart Throb was a person, it would be this person:
By which I mean, what we’re looking at here is a venerable silverfox of a book, eminently bangable, but, y’know, of a certain age, and showing it just a little bit. Even though I completely loved it, in some ways I found Heart Throb slightly harder to get to grips with than some of the older-schooler (yes, that’s technical vocabulary) romances I’ve read because, as far as I’m concerned, the 1970s were a bad hair day that happened to some other people, but I was around in the late 90s, I didn’t like them very much and I wish they were further away.
At least when you read The Flame & The Flower you can celebrate the fact that heroines are now allowed to enjoy sex without being raped, and, if you’re into rape fantasies, you can get those too, and that’s all cool. Unfortunately Heart Throb just takes me back to a time when Dead Of AIDS was the only permissible role for a fictional gay dude and the only way to discuss racism without causing a riot was to make it a problem for enlightened white people. And, although I think I should probably try to feel happier that there has been some degree of progress on both counts, mainly I just get a bit depressed that there hasn’t been more.
I should also emphasise that this isn’t a criticism of Heart Throb, which is deeply delightful in very many ways, but it reads to me like a book that isn’t so much a product of its time, as straight-jacketed by it. On the other hand, it’s also one of the few romances I’ve read (The Iron Duke being another) that seems to genuinely care that the world is not solely populated by straight, white, middle class people. And I don’t mean to be sanctimonious about it – after all, I’m a white middle class dude, what the hell do I know? – but it’s honestly just nice.
Right, the plot: Jed (Jericho) Beaumont is a superhot movie star with a serious substance addiction problem. Despite having been clean for five years, the parts aren’t coming in, and he’s desperate for the leading role in a film called The Promise. The producer (and, we later learn, screenwriter) is Kate O’Laughlin, who has spent the past decade spinning a fortune out of her parent’s stationery business after a short-lived film career in various low budget sexploitation horror movies. Of course, Jed lands the part, but only if he agrees to 24 hour supervision and regular drug and alcohol tests. They make a movie. Loads and loads of other stuff happens, and keeps happening. Somewhere in the middle of it all, they fall in love. The end.
Heart Throb was a slow burner for me, although that’s probably just because I’m emotionally repressed and clueless. I enjoyed reading it at the time, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that I really realised how much it had affected me, and how deeply I felt about it. I mean, I’ve got my gripes too, but they’re either minor (wow is this plot labyrinthine, Daedalus) or more generally directed at the 90s (frustrations related to the social constructions of gay people and people of colour), but none of that really detracted from the quality of the book itself.
So, to start, for a book with an incredibly gripping opening and an equally absorbing second half, Heart Throb actually takes a little while to get itself going. There are a lot of characters, a lot of connections and lot of motivations to establish, and so the beginning feels slow, unwieldy and expositive, at least in comparison to the pacing of later chapters. The situation that forces Kate’s hand into casting drunken has-been Jed Beaumont in the lead role of her movie looks something like this: Victor, the director, wants to cast Jed; Jamal, the hot black actor, wants to work with Susie; and Susie, the all American dream girl, also wants to work with Jed, so Kate has to give him the job, even though she and the financial backers think he’s a total liability. I’m sure this is probably a pretty accurate representation of the way Hollywood actually works, but it felt like that logic game where you have a fox, a chicken, and a bag of grain to get across the river. And I know it’s just set-up to get Kate and Jed together on a movie set, but it just felt a little bit too transparently like set up for me – a way to manipulate Kate into acting against her character, and her better judgement, because if she doesn’t there would be no plot, no love story, and no book.
There are a couple of such moments across the frankly complicated action of Heart Throb. For example, at one point Kate accidentally takes LSD and, although this makes a degree of sense in context, it also seems a way to force Jed and Kate to trust each other again, after he’s seriously goofed it up. And, while it was important to see Jed showing his good side, it still felt like an external solution to an internal problem. After all, trust isn’t, um, cumulative. You can’t balance a betrayal by being really nice afterwards. But, on the other hand, there’s such a lot of depth to the relationship between Jed and Kate, and it develops so intricately over the course of the book, that the LSD stuff basically works – I just felt it was another occasion on which Kate’s strength of character (which I admired) had to be awkwardly circumvented to further the plot.
I also felt a bit bad for how many people had to die for Jed’s emotional growth – there’s Dead Of AIDS Tom (who, to give him credit, really comes through the text as a real person, with a personality and a life, which is why I was so depressed he was Dead Of AIDS) and, later, Jed’s best friend David gets randomly killed while doing A Good Deed at a prison. I know the point of David’s death was that it was supposed to be random and arbitrary, because death so often is, but I still kinda felt Jed needed to come with some kind of public health and safety warning: don’t be emotionally significant to me, you’ll die.
And, finally, I felt slightly awkward about The Promise, the fictional movie. As far as I can tell, it seems to be a story about how some nice white people save some black people from some bad white people, and also how slavery is bad, by the way. Apart from Jamal, the young black actor they’ve brought in to play Moses the rebellious slave, it’s an incredibly white-centric undertaking. And I don’t know how much that’s, well, a problem. After all, educating white people to be less crappy white people is the responsibility of white people, not people of colour. But equally I’m sort of nebulously bothered by how often stories about slavery focus on everybody except the, um, slaves. Like, there’s a bit near the end, where Moses has been recaptured and the rest of characters are really really upset about it:
Both Jane and Laramie were to look at Moses standing there, and see their own lives wrapped in figurative chains. (p. 320).
The thing is … that dude is literally in chains, guys. I understand that slavery is negative across the board and that there are times when it feels like the lives we live are not our own … but that dude is literally in chains. This is not the time for metaphor.
But, you know, I’m essentially wringing my little white hands over a secondary text here, a secondary text, I’ve more or less invented in my head, based on the way well-meaning Hollywood films on these sort of subjects tend to go. But it felt a little bit odd, and not entirely comfortable, to squint back on the frustratingly limited ways you were allowed to talk about race in the 90s. There’s a bit right in the middle of the novel where they go on a tour of a plantation house, and see the slave quarters, and it’s really vividly written, and utterly horrific. Except, there’s this very long discussion where Jed takes a time out to explain to Jamal just how hideously shitty it was to be a slave, and Jamal responds as follows:
Jamaal looked up at him, understanding finally glistening in his eyes. “Shit.” (172).
Most charitably, this is an experienced actor helping a less inexperienced actor to find his way into a part. Less charitably, this is a white guy helping a black guy deepen his understanding of slavery. Um. On the other hand, I liked how resistant Jamal is to playing a slave, and how bewildered and angry it makes him, even though he recognises it’s a career-defining part for him. Because, when you get right down to it, assuming that a black actor can instinctively get a grip on the role of a slave, is just as absurd as assuming he knows how to rap. Also Jamal read, to me, like a very typical eighteen year old – it makes sense, and hell, it’s probably right, that’s he has absolutely no interest in slavery.
At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to get my GCSE in Romance Reading, Heart Throb has many themes. As seems only fitting for a book set largely on a Hollywood film set, it’s deeply preoccupied with the gaps between appearance and reality, the extent to which we’re helplessly defined by where we come from and how the world perceives us, and the ways we find the truth of ourselves between the roles we play. So there’s Jed, trapped between his past and his addictions, always craving his next drink, full of pain and anger, and so terrified of turning into his abusive father he hardly dares to feel anything at all. And then there’s Kate, who has been treated as a sexual object for about as long as she can remember, desperately trying to find a way to inhabit her own body without losing herself. Jamal, of course, is simply trying to grow up and find a role for himself that isn’t defined or limited by the colour of his skin. And Susie is in a very similar position, trying to find, at the age of fifteen, a balance between professional integrity and pragmatism, while the adults in her life use her as means to navigate their own insecurities and disappointments. There are, of course, no simple answers here and, Heart Throb, to its credit, doesn’t try to provide any – unless, perhaps, the possibility that, when we fall in love, we are able to be our best, worst and truest selves. Excuse me, I need to go and do some manly sobbing in the corner.
Okay, I’m all right. Let’s pretend that didn’t happen. I should say that, despite the fact I’ve probably made it sound like one, Heart Throb is not a woe parade. It races along at a fair pace, and is full of wit, charm and incident. Also at one point Jed gets handcuffed naked to a bed in a scene I felt bad for finding as inappropriately interesting as I did. The thing is, even when reality seems quite irredeemably bleak, hope is never too far away, and Brockmann has a wonderful way of presenting people and situations in all their occasionally paradoxical complexity. After all the things that break us are often the things that make us. Jed’s upbringing is, undeniably, terrible but it still drives him to be the man he becomes, and his fear of turning into his father is simultaneously the thing that leads him to lock away his feelings and the thing that leads him to seek help for his addictions. Kate’s relationship with her body is just as complicated and I’m wary of over-simplifying it, but I genuinely got the feeling that she had found a place where her beauty and her sexuality could be a source of strength and pleasure to her, rather than assets to be exploited by others. As for Susie and Jamal, they get to do a little piece of their growing up together.
And then, of course, you have Hollywood itself. I confess I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on behind the bright lights but most of the portrayals of Hollywood I’ve encountered have tended to either fall neatly into either omg!awesome or omg!evil. What I really appreciated about Heart Throb was its ability to encompass a range of ambiguities and compromises. There’s no denying the abstract machine of Hollywood is exploitative and harmful – everybody caught up in it, Jamal, Susie, Kate, and Jed, are, to a degree, damaged by it. But, once again, this isn’t the end of the story: it set Jed on a path to addiction and destruction, but it also set him free of his family, it defines Jamal solely by the colour of his skin and Susie by the colour of her hair, but there is hope of more for both of them. And Kate is able to put her short-lived career as slasher movie eye candy aside to write, and produce, The Promise, which is clearly a labour of love and, regardless of my personal uncertainties about it, a meaningful and powerful film that will affect the thinking of a lot of people. Most of the individuals we encounter actually involved in the day-to-day business making of movies seem to act with genuine integrity, passion and commitment, even those who seem the most obviously stereotypical, like Victor, the libidinous director.
There’s an interesting moment somewhere in the middle of the book where Victor hires an actress to play a bit part based solely on the fact he wants to sleep with her. But, actually, she turns out to be perfectly competent and Kate admits that she couldn’t have made a better choice. I just thought this was a really intriguing portrayal of the ambiguities of the creative environment, and the way private, public and artistic goals intersect. As far as I’m aware, the way this story usually plays out is that when you hire an actress you want to bonk, she’s hilariously terrible which, now I think about it, is pretty damn insulting, since being sexually desirable is in no way the opposite of being competent, and this is precisely what Kate has spent her entire life struggling against. Heart Throb is full of tiny little incidents like this, and they come together, reflecting upon and contrasting against each other, to form an incredibly rich and complicated book.
Gosh, I’m probably going to have to stop talking about Heart Throb at some point. I just really liked it, and I liked everyone in it. Kate, of course, is excellent. She’s strong, and stubborn, and sexy and – again, this is way above my pay grade – but it seemed to me her issues with her body and her sexual choices were really deftly portrayed. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but I just liked how hurt and miserable she was about the way the world kept treating her like public property simply because she was beautiful. Obviously, I have no experience of what this would be like and I don’t mean to reductively compare it to minor things that have happened to me – but I do know what it’s like to walk down the street and have a random stranger, with no knowledge of me whatsoever, yell out something personal or insulting or just none of their goddamn business. And I think one of the problems associated with this behaviour is that fiction persistently wants you to believe you can in some way be totally empowered and kick arse about it. But, actually, you don’t feel strong and outraged, you mainly feel weak and outraged, and like there’s nothing you can do. Because, frankly, there isn’t. You can’t even confront these people because you’re not really confronting an individual, you’re dealing with the entire abstract monster of cultural policing, which insists that if you in some way deviate from the perceived norm – by being beautiful, by being queer, by being non-white, by wearing the wrong clothes, by being the wrong shape – you lose the right to move through the world without public scrutiny and comment. There’s no way to fight this, and there’s no way to come away from it feeling anything other than rubbish.
And Kate has really suffered because of it. There’s a bit where Jed is blatantly objectifying her (staring at her breasts when she’s trying to talk to him) and she nearly cries. And when I write it down, it sounds like the sort of thing that might make you judge a character for being weak. But Kate isn’t weak. Not remotely. In the scene, she’s frustrated with herself not being able to handle it “better” but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? She shouldn’t have to handle it at all. Perhaps it’s a little grim but I just found it really refreshing to see an author confront head on the unspeakable truth that being disempowered just makes you feel disempowered. It isn’t a source of secret strength, and the only real way to deal with it is to just keep living, find some way to be yourself, do what you want to do, and try to be happy. Which is what Kate is essentially doing. Spectacularly.
As for Jed, the truth is, for one reason and another, I over-identified with the dude like you wouldn’t believe. Oh all right, you guessed it: I was recently voted World’s Sexiest[Errr – best typo ever – I’d originally written this as ‘sexist’ – something I don’t think they usually give awards for] Man by Time magazine. Well, maybe not. I can’t really believe I’m going to talk about this in public but here goes. When I was about sixteen, I’d occasionally fall into conversation with people I didn’t know, and I’d, well, I’d find myself coming up with a bunch of complete lies about who I was, and what I was doing. Nothing particularly outlandish, and I wasn’t trying to be malicious, but I wasn’t wildly happy at the time and I’d find a strange comfort in being someone else, even if only fleetingly in a stranger’s eyes. It sounds utterly deranged and, truthfully, it’s not something I’ve told anyone – precisely because it’s so damn odd. And now I’m telling the internet. Yay. I should also take this opportunity to mention that it was a brief, um, phase and I absolutely do not feel any need to do it anymore. I’m perfectly happy to be me. But you can probably imagine my surprise, and my strange joy, when, in the middle of Heart Throb, Jed confesses to having done something very similar when he was growing up.
I know this doesn’t tell you anything about Heart Throb, or if you should read it for yourself, but it just made me remember how absolutely bloody miraculous books can be sometimes. And the inexpressible, incalculable value of those tiny moments, probably completely meaningless to anyone else, that make your own little universe feel a little less odd, or a little less lonely. There’s a bit in The History Boys where Hector, talking to Posner I think, says:
The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.
And, for me, this was just like that. And it was perfect. That is all.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Heart Throb: I’m not as weird as I thought. Reading is brilliant. There are many themes. Everything is very complicated.