Disclaimer: I read Glenda Leznoff’s YA novel Heartache and Other Natural Shocks because she is a colleague, though I don’t know her well.
The Globe and Mail review compares Heartache to Judy Blume’s work “because of the deliciously juicy realism.” I can’t speak to how the book stacks up to Blume–I haven’t read her since I was a pre-teen, and I also first read her as a pre-teen, which gives her books special status in my reading life. But I’d agree Leznoff is working in that “juicy realism” tradition, and her teenagers and their preoccupations, like Blume’s, largely rang true to me. And like Blume, she is frank and nonjudgmental about teenage girls’ sexuality.
The novel is set in 1970s suburban Toronto; Jules (Julia) Epstein’s mom has decided the family has to move from Montreal after the FLQ murder of Pierre Laporte. Jules is miserable about leaving her best friend Mollie and her dad, who ostensibly stays behind temporarily to sell their house and wind up his business, but who is less convinced than her Mom that Quebec is about to separate and they need to get out. (If you think you know where this is going, you’re probably right).
Next door in Toronto lives Carla Cucinelli, who is not Jules’ new best friend. Jules is artsy and intellectual; Carla is a popular mean girl who knows how to work her assets. Each develops a crush on the mysterious, gorgeous new guy, Ian. If you think you know where this is going, you’re wrong. I really enjoyed the way Leznoff tweaked the familiar love triangle plot: this isn’t a story where the “ordinary” heroine beats her flashier antagonist and gets they guy, nor does she get beaten. I wouldn’t say that this feels like a novel deliberately playing with tropes, or one that’s critiquing them; it just tells a different story using familiar elements.
Heartache is told in short chapters alternating between Jules’ and Carla’s points of view. Jules definitely plays the lead and is more interesting (at least to me, because I identified more with her), but Carla emerges as fully human, not a clichéd mean girl, because we get her point of view. She’s more than an antagonist, and unexpectedly sympathetic. We often seem the same events from dual points of view (though this structure manages not to be repetitive) and thus both sympathize with and get some critical distance on both girls.
Part of the story revolves around a school production of Hamlet, and while the novel isn’t a retelling of Shakespeare, Leznoff refracts the play’s themes in interesting ways that enrich her story: parental absence and betrayal, the search for identity, despair, uncertainty about if and how to act. But Leznoff’s story isn’t a tragedy, though there’s certainly unhappiness for Jules and Carla along the way. Everyone does not die, and the ending offers plenty of hope. These are two strong girls who’ll handle whatever life brings next, even if they’re sometimes over-dramatic about doing it.