Second Hand Heart by Catherine Ryan Hyde is a complex novel and it's one that I've had a tough time really nailing down my thoughts and feelings for. Overall, this is a solidly good book. It has strongly written characters, all who are very distinct and unique and real. But some of their interactions and relationships were less real to me. And, some of their decisions made me angry. It's been weeks since I read this book and I still can't decide if I'm angry at the characters themselves for their stupid choices or at the book for going there.
I would like to say that any incoherencey in this review is to be blamed on the fact that this is how I'm working out the details of how I feel about the individual aspects of the book, so you might get to see some Aha moments.:)
The story is written as a series of journal entries from both Vida and Richard. Vida thinks her name is stupid. It's Spanish for life, and she's 19 and dying of a life long heart disease. She's at the very top of the donor list which is both a very good and very bad place to be. It's good because it means that the next matching heart is yours. It's bad, because it means you are so desperately sick, odds are pretty good that you will die before that heart donor does. It also creates some really intricate and rough emotions to deal with and I thought those were beautifully illustrated. We see it a lot in her mom also. How do you pray for a heart to become available to save the life of your child, when that available heart means that someone else has died. How do you feel like a good person when you are wishing for someone's death so that your little girl will be able to experience life. It's not bad enough that you have to watch your child suffer and wither into almost nothingness, but then you have to recognize that the only thing that could possibly save her is the loss of someone else. Ouch.
Richard is in his late 30s (I believe) and his wife, who was an organ donor and a match for Vida dies in a car accident. Vida and her mother ask/extend the invitation to Richard to meet them and he decides to go, against the advice of his mother-in-law. Richard is also putting himself into a tough position. He's just barely lost his beloved wife and now he's going to meet the young girl who had her life renewed because his wife lost hers. That would be so hard, and would definitely be made undeniably harder when the new owner of that heart declares her love for Richard, even though this is the first time they've met.
So — When reading Vida's narrative sections, I loved her. She's had such a hard life and it's definitely not easy now. But she's funny and so full of the idea of life. She's been so sick her whole life that she's had no normal social interactions and a lot of basic social skills completely escape her. Her mom doesn't know how to stop being the overprotective do-everything-for-you type, because with all Vida's health problems, she's never had that natural progression into self-sufficiency. Can you imagine the challenge? To go from dying to better almost overnight and trying to cope with the changes?! That would be hard on everyone involved and it was, it definitely was. Vida was by far my favorite character. But when Richard narrated, I didn't like her as much. She seemed awkward and weird and... kinda crazy. I have to say that this is probably brilliance on the part of Ms. Hyde, because initially, Richard does kinda write Vida off as crazy and that's easy to see in his recitation of their interactions through his journal. So while it made me sad, especially in the beginning, to realize that I didn't really like Vida when Richard was narrating, I also now recognize it as a brilliant move on Hyde's part because it pulls you more into Richard's character. If Richard doesn't like her, or views her as a bit of a lunatic, I can't do much else, even knowing how much I loved her before.
The focus of this novel is really in the relationship between Richard and Vida and the heart, and whether or not cellular memory can, in fact, possibly be a real thing. And this part of the novel was, almost without exception, flawlessly wonderful (there is one part, toward the resolution of the story that really didn't sit well with me, and no amount of explanation or justification will ever make me okay with that, but it's a pretty huge spoiler, so I won't go into detail). However, I did feel that much of the secondary character and story development really suffered because of how encompassing and important the heart was. It almost felt like Hyde was trying to tell two stories here — One, the story of a transplant recipient feeling the residual love and emotions of the donor and Two, the story of a girl who's never had a chance to really live being given a new chance at life, a chance to do all she had previously missed out on. You would think that those two stories would fit perfectly together, but for some reason, a lot of what happened ended up being slightly unbelievable (and not just the psychic either. I'm also talking about a boy who has had two head nods on the stairs with Vida being willing to completely uproot his life for a? ? maybe? ?). I'm choosing not to say much about these sections, because I do think the most important part of the story revolves around the heart, but if you do allow yourself a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief for how, the side stories and characters do create a novel that is so much more than it would be without.
I know I kind of circle around in that above paragraph about a few things (partly because I'm still conflicted) but overall, I did really enjoy this book and it is a book that I would actually recommend to a lot of people. It's incredibly thought provoking and one that really makes you think, makes you question, and makes you wonder about a lot of different things. There is so much to think about within this book. So much wondering, so much love and loss and life and pain and hope and strangeness that I'd say it's impossible to leave this novel without some type of food for thought. This is a book that I'd love to discuss with others because there is just so much to it.