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Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson

how to break your own heart alderson Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson

At 37, Amelia Bradlow is reasonably content with her lot in life. Certainly, shes not necessarily rapturously ecstatic about the way things are going, nor necessarily utterly fulfilled, but things are as they areand as they always have been, leaving her with little to complain about. After fifteen years of marriage, she and her husband Ed have settled into a routine thats comforting to both parties within the relationship, but frankly utterly disturbing to those snoopily peering in from without. Eds obsession with order and custom borders on the pathological: according to him the only allowable restaurants are those within a three mile radius, the only safe wines to drink are those that hail from the Champagne region of France, the only possible venues to stay in are those that have been vetted years earlier and found suitable, and the only acceptable outfit for Amelia is one that replicates her look when they first met. And lets not mention Mr Bun, Eds stuffed elephant companion. Eds extraordinary intransigence and stultifying fear of the most minute change has slowly crippled their relationship, and their relationship with others, and Amelia and Ed increasingly live as fond strangers with a bleary recollection of better times.

But when snippy Kiki (whose snicker-snack name perfectly encapsulates her spiky and unflinching personality) flounces on to the scene, all sky-high Louboutins, similarly elevated self-esteem, and a lifestyle that leaves Amelia wondering whether her own is somewhat (or perhaps entirely) lacking. Kikis unsubtle prodding at Amelias abruptly revealed achilles heel (her plummeting fertility levels), and her incisive questioning of the health of her painfully insular relationship with Ed sets Amelia off on the road of self-examination and personal growth. Armed with a new career, a new sense of purpose, and with a sudden yen for Japanese fusion cuisine and snappy hairstyles, Amelia finds herself perfectly positioned to move on. But does she want to?

My thoughts

I was a little underwhelmed by Maggie Aldersons Cents and Sensibility (see my review), having found myself stumbling over the potholes evident in the well-trodden ground worked over in the novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly,'How to Break Your Own Heart does feature a number of similar themes and tropes, unselfconsciously trotting out the old stand-bys of the gaspingly bitchy gay best friend, the brazenly obnoxious woman of independent means, the shocking infantile partner, the brooding and massively sexualised alpha male suitor, 'the elderly but oh-so-naughty neighbour-confidante, and of course the whole overcoming-adversity-through-rustic-homeliness thing. However, unlike its predecessor, it incorporates these elements with rather a good deal more verve and flair, and although a good deal of suspension of disbelief is required at nearly every narrative turn, How to Break Your Own Heart is at times quite a fascinating portrayal of co-dependence, habituation, and slowly budding self-esteem.

While Amelias transformation from mousy housewife who appears to be suffering something akin to Stockholm Syndrome after years of Eds careful moulding to independent social butterfly capable of existing beyond the husband-wife binary at times invites head shaking and the odd scoff from the reader, the social context into which Alderson places all of this is both fascinating and challenging.'Amelias relationship with the well-heeled and incredibly snotty Ed has been from the outset incredibly unhealthy, with starstruck Amelia leaping into the fray presumably as a way to escape the agonised family situation she has endured at homeperhaps she is in search of yet another controlling father figure to replace the one from whom she is running. But its somewhat frustrating for the reader to see Amelia blatantly acknowledge the daily ordeal faced by her own mother, but then offer up nothing more than complete inaction with regard to it. Rather than addressing the issues at hand, they have been simply allowed to fester and simmer, and thus they inevitably crop up again in Amelias own home life. One cant help but wonder that in her Tarzan-like leaping from relationship to relationship and poisonous social situation to (potentially poisonous) social situation that Amelia is simply trading one set of woes for the next without adequate time for self-reflection, and given her sudden burning need to procreate (this desire is bewildering in its sudden appearance), one is rather dubious about the quality of her decision making.

While Amelias head-in-the-sand approach to life is at times frustrating to read, Ed is even more so. Painted as someone who is painfully passive-aggressive, socially avoidant, impossibly infantile, and stubborn to the point of senselessness, Ed is depicted in such a poor light that its impossible to read the scenes involving him without some choice teeth-grinding action. I would perhaps have responded better to his character were we given greater insight into his personality, or were Amelia perhaps to respond less like a whipped dog to his lashingly patronising ways. As it is, however, were given a hasty sketch of Eds desultory childhood (think stuffed elephant as a proxy for parental affection), and this is proffered as the reason behind his lack of social wiles, his weird attachment issues, and his refusal to have children (and here I must mention his 15 year obsession with condomsget a vasectomy, old chap!).

There is, admittedly, a bit of demonisation going on here that made me feel uncomfortable as a reader, and those who read my review of Cents and Sensibility will note that the same issue crops up in that novel, too. While Im happy to lock horns with the occasional dastardly character, and will if appropriate take the most ridiculous of motivations with a grain of salt if thats what the narrative requires, theres a note of social conservatism throughout this novel that I find bothersome. The binaristic opposition between Ed and Amelia in terms of their procreational desires feels so painfully arbitrary a plot point, having never really asserted itself as a sticking point in their relationship until raised by Kiki. I have to admit that I did find the fact that flighty Kikis resentment of children is put down to her infertility to be deeply underwhelming, as though the novel is suggesting that any woman who doesnt want to have children is somehow morally unsound (see my review of Men Ive Loved Before by Adele Parks for more on this issue). This conservative agenda is further pushed by the apparent need to tie up any loose ends and ensure that any singles, no matter how fleetingly narratively relevant, are paired up as best as possible, and I have to admit that this authorial match-making become a bit tiresome.

While for the most part the novel merrily chugs along its way, I would have liked to have seen some greater characterisation in terms of Kiki and her weird and esoteric friendships, as I cant help but feel that this would have added an extra depth to the narrative as a whole. Some additional attention to some of the turning points in the novel, such as Kikis alleged personal crisis, which leads abruptly to Amelias career change, Amelias sudden desire to have children, and the introduction of an old flame, might have helped things run a little more smoothly and believably, and would have reduced the reliance on coincidence and happenstance.


While I struggled with particular elements of the novel, on the whole I did find it light and engaging, and appreciated Aldersons evident growth as an author.'How to Break Your Own Heart for the most part delivers exactly what it promises: a frothy and vivacious chick lit peppered with High Street brand names, zippy dialogue, snarky but (largely) lovable characters, and the requisite pinch of existential and romantic angstthe fact that it had me considering the issues above is, for all my ranting, a positive indeed. However, if youre not in the mood for controlling males and dithering women, then perhaps put this one on the backburner for a bit.

Rating: star Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson (good)

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See also our review of Cents and Sensibility (Rating: star Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonhalfstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonblankstar Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson)

Other books by Maggie Alderson:

cens and sensibility alderson Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonmad about the boy alderson Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonhandbags and gladrags alderson Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Aldersonpants on fire alderson Review: How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson


  1. I dont know if I will read Alderson. I was a bit put off by her attitude when she was on Tuesday Book Club not too long ago.

  2. Stephanie /

    Hmm, I didnt catch it, but I know what you mean. Ive been thoroughly put off Brett Easton Ellis after hearing a recording of a speech he gave during his recent visit to Australia.

  3. Ive never really enjoyed any of Aldersens novels particularly though I have never really been able to put my finger on why. I did spot this at the library the other day but decided against it. Glad I did I think thanks for your articulate review Steph