I was beyond excited about this book – the sequel to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats - which I loved. Perhaps because of that I’m not really sure how to talk about A Well-Tempered Heart. I’m temped to say I was underwhelmed – the writing isn’t as poignant (though it tries to be), the plot isn’t as sentimental. But maybe that’s because Sendker has delved deeper with this one – coming out from under the cliche of romantic love to tackle a love that’s eminently more complicated – that between family members.
You don’t need to have read TAOHH to follow this book. Julia is back and so is U Ba, but that’s it. Tin Win and Mimi’s story is mentioned, but only briefly. Our book begins when a ten-years-older Julia hears a voice from inside her (not a metaphorical one, a real one) begging to know what’s happened to her son. Julia then goes on a pilgrimage to Burma to find out.
I found the premise kind of hokey – the first 50 pages is spent doing battle with the voice – trying to figure out who it is, where it’s coming from and whether or not Julia is crazy – an aspect that could’ve been whittled down to a single chapter, I think. Plus what’s the likelihood that the modern-day reader is going to believe that the voice of a long-dead mother has taken root inside someone else’s soul? I didn’t, that’s for sure. I continued on, but only to humor Sendker, not because I was invested yet.
In The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, we don’t learn much about Julia but that’s okay because she’s inconsequential – she’s only the vehicle through which (and to whom) U Ba tells the story of Tin Win and Mimi. But in this book Julia does take precedent; she’s portrayed as someone utterly lost and dissatisfied, someone who isn’t going achieve peace unless she finds herself first. To this end, I thought Sendker needed to do a better job with Julia’s characterization. We know she’s broken up with her boyfriend of three years but we learn knowing about him or the nature of their relationship. We know that Julia is a lawyer but never see her defending a case. Julia is an eerily vacant character – someone who just serves Sendker’s purposes and acts by the whim of his puppet strings. Her dialogue is stilted and unnatural, her thought process simplistic and Confucious-like. But maybe that’s just Sendker and his style – utterly charming in the first book but now ridden with holes.
Style aside, let’s talk about story. There’s definitely more at stake in this plot. I commend Sendker for delving further into the palette of human emotion – for daring to probe the recesses of human desperation. Like TAOHH, A Well-Tempered Heart is a story within a story and our focus, for most of it, is on Nu Nu, a Burmese mother forced to chose between her two sons during war time. This a heart wrenching moment, of course, one with far reaching implications. Thar Thar, the abandoned son, is very well-drawn; his feats as a porter (ahem, human mine detector) are vivid and memorable. So too, the relationship between Julia and U Ba is deeply felt – so Sendker does get some of his storytelling right.
Still, I wasn’t as affected by this book and I’m not running off to hand it to the next person I meet. Is it because I’m not as stirred by familial love? Or (more likely) did Sendker overstay his welcome, milking the success of TAOHH, to create another story completely unrelated to his main characters and not nearly as good? It pains me to write those words because I loved TAOHH so much. But don’t they say that about sequels? So many of them aren’t as good as the original. I had to read it to find out for myself and if you feel so compelled you might read it as well. But if I had to choose between Sendker novels, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats wins out. (Go read it if you haven’t yet! It’s phenomenal.)