On the cover of A Hole in the Heart, a woman stares at a snowy mountain ahead, her facing looking simple and dumbstruck by the view. Blue and pink lines fade into the image, suggesting the pages of a school notebook. The cover is vaguely unfocused. It tells you almost everything you need to know.
A Hole in the Heart is Bean Jessup’s story — the story of a twenty-something woman who has moved to Alaska to serve as a substitute teacher, to take some risks, to redefine herself, and to imagine herself as somebody new. It is also a novel of place: Eyak, Alaska. A pale blue milk truck. Apartments in Seattle and San Francisco. Classrooms filled with kids. Bean’s story grows from — and defines — those settings. She finds and loses a husband, rediscovers and comes to terms with her youth, takes a road trip with her arthritic, sticky-fingered step-mother Hanna, and gains new and unexpected friendships and romance.
Ultimately, her search is for a piece to fill the titular “hole in the heart, ” and that hole is the novel’s fundamental and beautifully rendered theme. What are the empty spaces inside of us and how do we fill them? Can someone else fill them for us? Or do we, as Bean’s stepmother suggests, learn to live with them and take comfort in their sore spots and grooves?
Bean is a third grade teacher and while her occupation occasionally provides moments of interest, author Christopher Marquis unwisely chooses to insert a series of song-poems Bean has written about a little duck. The verses are too cutesy, and too pointedly refer to Bean’s own emotional state. The little duck is overkill, and should have been shot down long ago.
A much more effective and enjoyable use of ‘created texts’ are the excerpts from The Pemberton Guide to Alaska’s Wild Birds — a fictional bird guide that Bean loves and refers to regularly — which serve as epigraphs for each chapter. The short descriptions of birds are touching and evocative, and as each chapter ends, it’s tempting to rush back to the front to see how the bird-anecdote might relate.
Still, what matters most about A Hole in the Heart is Bean and her relationships: with her husband and other men; with her gay best friend Jimmy, dying of AIDS; with her own mother and brother; and with her step-mother Hanna. The moments that ring truest are the quiet ones, between characters, when some small detail brings an unexpected ray of beauty to light.
Once the story moves to San Francisco, however, it seems to lose its way. This could be intentional. Bean’s mourning and recovery seem to recede in lieu of a series of anecdotal stories, clearly designed to illuminate her character but ultimately distracting from what the reader wants: Bean, Bean, Bean. The novel does, at times, seem as lost and aimless as its protagonist, but trust it. Read it to the end. Bean, and the reader, are in very competent hands.
One flashback, in particular encapsulates Bean’s character and will make any reader remember the yearning of adolescence; to be different, to be somewhere else, to be anyone but “me.” It is that journey, Bean’s journey toward loving and accepting herself, that this novel explores so well. And when the novel’s threads finally coalesce in a series of scenes that take place during, and evoke, twilight, it is a stunningly beautiful thing to read. Bean is never an extraordinary person — Marquis trusts us more than that — but she becomes, by the end of this moving novel, extraordinarily real.