By: Ed Tarkington
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Publication Date: 1/5/2016
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
My Rating: 5 Stars +
Top Books of 2016
Eight-year-old Rocky worships his older brother Paul--sixteen and full of rebel cool, smoking cigarettes, driving around in his Nova blasting Neil Young--until the day Paul, in an act of vengeance against their father, picks Rocky up from school and nearly leaves him for dead in the woods. Paul then runs off with his beautiful, fragile girlfriend, never to be heard from again.
Seven years later Rocky is a teenager himself. Although he's never forgotten the abandonment of his boyhood hero, he's now getting over it, with the help of the wealthy neighbors' daughter, ten years his senior, who has taken him as her lover. But the affair sets off a sequence of events that bring ruin to both families.
In the spirit of Willie Morris, Tom Franklin, and Wiley Cash, this spellbinding debut draws you into a small-town American Gothic story of family fealty, scandal, and murder.
A special thank you to Algonquin Books and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Ed Tarkington delivers an emotional, haunting, and breathtaking debut, ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART an enthralling mix of coming-of-age, a family saga, mystery, thriller, crime, suspense, and Southern Gothic, mixed with humor; in one unforgettable page-turner of complex “human relationships”.
"Love can make people do terrible things."
The title of the novel is derived from Neil Young’s 1970 album “After the Gold Rush” jammed packed with everything from Classic Rock, Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Mick Jagger, Neal Young, 70s, 80s, Doobie Brothers, Carolina Shag, Camels, Marlboro Lights, Reagan; beer drinking, southern town life, family dysfunction, mental illness, brothers, small town, domestic, affairs, sex, murder, financial loss, arts, culture, literary, religion, cult, hippies, femme fatale, sons and fathers, psychic, community, and loyalty.
Set in upper southern town of Virginia inside the city limits of Spencerville, near the Blue Ridge Mountains, at the turn of the 1970's. The town was built on tobacco money and the people were willing to plead ignorance as long as the world would let them. (kind of like today).
The narrator, Richard "Rocky" Askew is eight-years-old, and idolizes his older half-brother, Paul, age sixteen. Paul is “cooler than Fonz” (minus the leather jacket and motorcycle), bad boy --loves cigarettes and beer (you could buy cigarettes at 16). He also has a love for vinyl and music. He invites his little brother in his life, even with the age difference.
They live in The Old Man’s house —his mother is young enough to be Old Man’s daughter. Rocky’s mom is thirty-three, and the Old Man is sixty. She married him for his money, no doubt, since her parents were killed in an accident raised by her grandmother. She needed a father figure.
Across the grassy knoll in the distance, sat the old white columned estate house known as Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks had been vacant for many years, and Paul says it is haunted. From its ancestors--tobacco, liquor, poker, gambling, and whores. Then the stock market crash. Suicide. No one has lived there since. After all, his older brother had broken in and there was some trouble.
Paul was also seeing Leigh Bowman; she traded her tennis, dancing, and competitive swimming for lounging in Paul’s bedroom, smoking cigarettes, and listening to records. Her father forbade Leigh to see Paul.
The Culver’s purchased the mansion Twin Oaks. Jane and Brad. A tragic event occurs, things get crazy, and Paul takes off with his girlfriend Leigh Bowman. Rocky is devastated to lose his best friend. Due to his brother’s wild ways, his mother turns religious -- strict with Rocky.
As Rocky becomes a teenager, he turns to the rich neighbor (ten years older), the Culver's daughter, Patricia--teaching him the ways of the world (The Graduate). The mysterious older woman. (Hilarious) He was naïve and innocent.
She hires him to watch the horses, take care of the stables, mowing (plus more). In between equestrian activities, there is sex. He knew Paul would be impressed with his affair - the sexy older woman. Compared to Patricia, his own childhood seemed mundane. She had lived all over the world. He misses his brother.
There is also a back story of the two families: The Askews and the Culvers. Rocky is “sport” to Brad Culver. An investment goes bad. Black Monday. A stroke. Leigh returns and engaged to Charles, Patricia's older brother.
Rocky never forgets his older brother, and then one day when they are experiencing great financial difficulties, he returns. (The Prodigal Son). How can Rocky afford to remain at the academy, when they have no money?
A double murder. A hideous brutal crime. The little town’s innocence ended, replaced with panic and paranoia, dread, and suspicion, recrimination and lurid fascination. Devil worshipers? An enemy from Brad’s past to settle a score? Everyone is under suspicion.
Then there is Leigh and Paul. Leigh has mental illness. A new love and life for Rocky? What would a Southern novel be without tragedy, music, love and sadness?
Written with passion, reminiscent of earlier times--not so much a plot-driven novel; however, a bold, rich character-driven novel, with vivid settings. Tarkington’s prose is colloquial and evocative-- honest, raw, and down- to- earth, capturing the South. As a reader you are fully invested in it's characters. The focused attention is on their distress, and the possible consequences. It is Rocky and Paul’s journey, their life, their desires, fears---love, acceptance. Heartwarming, soul-searching.
“No good can come from regret.”
Ongoing strong themes of family and community; loyalty and betrayal, love and redemption. In this extraordinary coming-of-age story we experience the hormones of youth, the trials of growing up, and a “larger-than-life drama of intimacy and betrayal.”
“When people build something together—be it abstract or physical, spiritual or material—the circle closes around them. They find that elusive peace that, as the other Paul once wrote, passes all understanding. “
LIFE the good, the messiness, the bad, and ugly; Abandonment and forgiveness, love and betrayal--sins of the wayward youth. Where would we be without our mistakes? The risk of love. "All life is performance, and performance is life." Like a play. The ties that bind for better or worse; love always comes with the risk of a broken heart. The question for us all: Can we live without it? Is it worth the risk? Powerful stuff.
What really makes the novel:
I thoroughly enjoyed the inspiration behind the novel: As the author quotes in a Q&A and essay below:
“It’s not memoir, but it’s fiction with a lot of memory in it.”
The epigraph — “How accidentally a fate is made . . . or how accidental it all may seem when it is inescapable” — comes from “The Human Stain.” Philip Roth Why that passage?
“I’ve always been fascinated in art and life with how random circumstances can direct our paths. These characters make some pretty reckless choices when they’re young and have to watch the consequences of those choices roll out from there. But when we come to the end of their story, we discover that this was the only way it was ever going to be — all of this had to happen. I thought that line elegantly captured that conundrum.” Author Essay
Tarkington does an exceptional job portraying life in the South during this time period. Fans of Southern authors, John Hart, Pat Conroy, and Wiley Cash will the appreciate intimate relationships between father and sons, a brother's bond, and life in a changing time—At its core, it is a love story. You will also be reminded of the works of: William Faulkner, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Deeply flawed characters.
In addition to the digital reading copy, I had already pre-ordered the audiobook. Peter Berkrot, is my favorite male narrator, providing an extraordinary performance! A perfect voice for Rocky--adding icing to the cake. What a powerful collaboration.
A perfect title. A beautiful novel. Highly recommend- cannot wait to see what is next! An author to follow. I have a strong feeling this is only the beginning --to a long line of bestsellers.
Read Author's Essay "She had long, straight hair then, parted down the middle, like a young Judy Collins." A Faithful Invention
Love the Judy Collins reference: Judy Collins, now 76, is as creatively vigorous as ever, writing, touring worldwide, and nurturing fresh talent. A product of the 50's, am proud to be named after this extraordinary woman.
Buy the Book
Algonquin Goes Vinyl for ‘Music City’ Novel Promo Publisher's Weekly
By Judith Rosen | Jan 05, 2016
Last spring when Algonquin asked author Ed Tarkington for suggestions about trinkets to give booksellers and the media with their advance copies of his debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the Nashvillian suggested a 45-rpm. Not only does he have a big collection of vinyl, but his coming-of-age novel is shot-through with ‘70s rock-n-roll. Read More
“A coming-of-age story that evolves into a whodunit with tangled roots in three families whose lives collide in 1977 . . . [a] well-plotted, generous inquiry into the intricacies of the human heart — especially the broken variety . . ."
—Atlanta Journal Constitution
“A lush mystery-within-a-coming-of-age-tale-within-a-Southern-Gothic. If a book could have an Instagram filter, Tarkington’s would be set on something called ‘Nostalgic’ . . . interesting, readable and beautifully written.” —NPR Books
“Tarkington’s childhood was accompanied by the sounds of classic rock . . . and now it’s at the heart of his debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a story of love, loyalty, murder and vinyl.” —The Tennessean
“Tarkington’s writing is talky, devoid of flash, and calls to mind a young Pat Conroy . . . propulsion is its primary attribute. Not mere plot propulsion—though there’s plenty of that, especially after the corpses turn up—but emotional propulsion: Tarkington’s fidelity to period and place is matched by his fidelity to human contradictions, to the gray area between heroism and villainy in which most of us reside. The gothic elements add spice, but the protein in this assured debut—the part that sticks to your ribs—is the beautiful but ever-threatened connection between Rocky and Paul. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a novel about brotherhood, most of all, about the delicate fortress of that bond.” —Garden & Gun
“A wonderful, beauty-haunted piece of work. Tarkington's voice in his hard-to-put-down debut novel has a timeless feel to its cadences, the same bittersweet music we hear in the storytelling of the best of our Southern writers.” —Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
“From beginning to end, the plotline is intense, never flagging.”—Booklist
“Well-written and observed . . . Tarkington carefully lays out his elaborate storyline and sensitively depicts his troubled characters.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This heartbreakingly effective coming-of-age story about the importance of love in one’s life is replete with moments of harsh cruelty and tender love. Beautifully written....Readers will stop and reread paragraphs, not because of confusion but for the pure joy of the language . . . Fans of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help will embrace debut author Tarkington’s depiction of Southern life at a time of changing social mores. Most of all, readers who can’t get enough of Wiley Cash, Ron Rash, and Brian Panowich will delight in discovering this fine new writer.” —Library Journal, starred review
“A rich, moody, moving novel about growing up and growing old before your time. Tarkington’s people are rakes, rascals, irascible losers, femme fatales, rich buffoons, dunderheads, beautiful loons, and one very cool dude, all balanced by the voice of a narrator you come to love as much as he loves his doomed older brother. On top of all that, it’s a very fun, deeply satisfying, page-turner of a book.” —Brad Watson, author of The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
“Elegant...Only Love Can Break Your Heart is a love story that just might break your heart, too.” —Matt Bondurant, author of The Night Swimmer and The Wettest County in the World
“I’m speechless. I don’t remember the last debut novel that kept me turning pages enthralled. Only Love Can Break Your Heart is part The Graduate, part southern gothic dysfunctional family, part Edisto, part The Moviegoer. It’s all Ed Tarkington, though. Funny, desperate, sad, tender, suspenseful, intelligent, insightful, and full of nothing but heart, heart, heart.” —George Singleton, author of Between Wrecks
“Ed Tarkington’s first novel manages an expert narrative feat--it is somehow both ruminative and remarkably suspenseful. A novel of family and love and class, of beautiful youth and terrible consequences. And of heartbreak, of course, as the title makes plain and life makes inescapable. Readers will be born along on the strength and clarity of Tarkington’s prose, the twists and pivots of his plot. Only Love Can Break the Heart is a truly auspicious debut.” —Michael Knight, author of The Typist
“Tarkington’s prose is effortlessly smooth...creating a story that is at once bizarre and utterly familiar. He asks us to remember that we are all trying desperately to be loved, often failing, but trying.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“A reader need not be a disciple of rock legend Neil Young to find that Only Love Can Break Your Heart strikes a nostalgic chord. But for those of us who appreciate Young’s immense musical gifts, Ed Tarkington’s debut novel will likely prove twice as harmonious. In many ways a classic coming-of-age story, the novel also digs deep into the loamy depths of the modern Southern Gothic genre, circa 1970s . . . Tarkington’s impressive first novel achieves every author’s goal: Once you start reading, you can’t stop. And as an added bonus for Neil Young fans, Tarkington’s riveting tale provides plenty of classic rock riffs, too.” —BookPage
About the Author
Photo Credit: Glen Rose
Ed Tarkington received a BA from Furman University, an MA from the University of Virginia, and PhD from the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Florida State. A frequent contributor to Chapter16.org, his articles, essays, and stories have appeared in Nashville Scene, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Post Road, the Pittsburgh Quarterly, the Southeast Review, and elsewhere.
A native of Central Virginia, he lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Read More