Rebecca's Reviews > Where My Heart Used to Beat

Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks
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it was ok
bookshelves: reviewed-we-love-this-book, historical-fiction, war-fiction

In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. It is the late 1970s when Robert Hendricks receives a letter from Alexander Pereira, an elderly doctor who served alongside his father in the First World War. The men share a professional interest in dementia and mental illness and Pereira invites Hendricks to visit him on a small island off France and, if all goes well, eventually become his literary executor.

In a fluid first-person narrative Hendricks recalls – sometimes orally to Pereira and other times just for readers – his village upbringing and experiences of the Second World War in France and Italy. That old pistol wound to his shoulder is nowhere near as painful as the memory of his brief love affair with Luisa, an Italian Red Cross worker. Pereira suggests that repressing these wartime memories is only hurting Hendricks and encourages him to seek out old colleagues and lovers. Along the way, Hendricks begins to question what he thinks he knows about the past.

Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history.


Why just 2 stars? Well, I vacillated between 2 and 3, but realized that I’ve compared this unfavorably with Birdsong and The Magus, both of which I gave 3. Although the book is certainly readable, nothing about it feels fresh. Especially when it concerns the world wars, a novel has to do something truly new to stand out. There are certainly memorable lines and scenes, but I didn’t think Faulks quite brought everything together. Why does the novel open with him hiring a prostitute in a New York City apartment, for instance? Similarly, what’s the point of Céline, the 25-year-old gamine he meets in France when he sees her diving nude for urchins, except to show him up as a dirty old man?

Stories of disaffected sixty-somethings trying to make sense of the past and hold on to their sexuality are common enough. Faulks had the opportunity to make this one stand out by contrasting the materialist Hendricks’s full-circle life story with the thesis that the twentieth century marked a loss of the belief that individual lives matter, but I didn’t feel he followed through on the full possibility of this meaning.

Nor was Hendricks’s first-person narrative revealing or intimate enough; third person would have done the job. I also noted two places where I thought flashbacks were clumsy: “the nap of the upholstered seat and the faint smell of diesel were carrying me away – whether I chose to go back or not...Back to that summer of 1944” (ellipsis as in original) and “Thinking of Luisa made me go back in my mind over the other women I had known.”

The title is from Tennyson’s epic elegy, “In Memoriam,” an allusion Faulks doesn’t nearly match up to in terms of emotional depth. This is my fourth Faulks novel; my favorite by far was A Week in December, a rare contemporary one for him. I doubt I’ll check out his back catalogue of historical fiction.

P.S. I nominate pages 228–30 for the Bad Sex award (sample: “the abdomen was flat, the haunches strong and there was a pleasing definition to the patella”).

P.P.S. I did like that Hendricks’s surname matches his love of gin.


Lines worth salvaging:

“I wondered whether it was a peculiarly English trait to feel like an impostor all one’s life, to fear that at any moment one might be rumbled – or whether this was a common human failing.”

“Youthful events are written bold on the virgin page; middle-aged experience is at its best a palimpsest in which the previous drafts are legible and breathing.”

From Pereira’s notes: “the biggest part of the human personality is determined by the way it remembers. Not by what it remembers but by how it remembers it.”

“I didn’t want to have Luisa transposed from the chiaroscuro of my memory to the strip light of the present.”
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Reading Progress

July 11, 2015 – Shelved
July 11, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 28, 2015 – Started Reading
August 29, 2015 – Shelved as: reviewed-we-love-this-book
August 29, 2015 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
September 6, 2015 – Finished Reading
September 8, 2015 – Shelved as: war-fiction

Comments Showing 1-12 of 12 (12 new)

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message 1: by Sue (new)

Sue I've only read Birdsong which I found to have problems. Love this review and, if your sample is illustrative, definitely agree with the Bad Sex award.


Rebecca I know people who have rated Birdsong 5 stars, but it didn't resonate with me.

To be fair, that one's supposed to be bad sex: it's a woman he's not really attracted to, so he withdraws into a doctor's clinical vocabulary. Still, as a sex scene it's truly dreadful!


message 3: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Yeah, poorly-defined patella such a turn-off.


message 4: by June (new) - added it

June Tilbury How have you read this already????


Rebecca It was released in the UK today. I was sent an ARC a couple weeks before that.


Maureen Excellent review.


Rebecca Thanks, Maureen -- even though you liked the book?


Maureen Yes, I don't see our opinions to be mutually exclusive at all. I can't say I disagree with you, and you have presented it so well. My status as an "amateur" who is reading purely for my own pleasure impacts my approach to the reading and reviewing. If only I had the time and the brains to actually critique something, rather than just express my own feelings....


Dave Hoff Rebecca, you have a good command of words to describe this book, I do not. I agree much, all (?) of the sex leave out. As a Korean War Vet I did not have the flashback of my Military (USCG) life til the night after I retired from my civilian life of 33+ yrs. Then wham.. That was 26 yrs ago, on the 'net with other Coasties of that era helps. Thanks, keep up the good reports


message 10: by Dawn (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dawn Loved your review. The book left me unmoved too. I did not find the characters engaging and I also thought there were clumsy areas in plot construction. This is my first Faulks book and I shall not be in a hurry to try another.


message 11: by Dave (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dave Hoff Dawn wrote: "Loved your review. The book left me unmoved too. I did not find the characters engaging and I also thought there were clumsy areas in plot construction. This is my first Faulks book and I shall not..."

Liked your comment and the 2 stars, It could have been a better (not 4 stars tho.) book had sex and some other needless stuff been omitted.


message 12: by Dianne (new)

Dianne thanks for this review. I had enjoyed other books by Faulks, Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion D'Or, but I am not taking to this one. in fact, I find it annoying! it is hard for me not to finish a book I have started, but this one is being put down for something better.


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