Book Review: Heartsick

If there was an award for scariest dedication, Chelsea Cain wouldn’t have any competition. Her national bestseller, Heartsick, starts off with: “For Marc Mohan, who loved me even after he read this book”. I had to pause before I started the first chapter. What in the hell was I getting myself into?

A pickle, that’s what. I have a bit of a problem here. I am giving this book highest marks and I am about to lavish some serious praise on it, but I am by no means recommending this book to everyone. If anyone passed by and bought this book because they saw my 5/5, and now you are back to determine what in the world I was thinking, all I can say is: I didn’t tell you so. Because you didn’t listen.

People I would not recommend this book to: My father, who just had a heart attack and can’t stand the stress of watching CNN. My mother, who would love the book, but I wouldn’t want her to know that I think she would. Anyone with PTSD. People that live alone or with someone else that they feel is incapable of adequately protecting them. Very young people. Very old people. Squealers. Anyone who has ever fainted.

I apologize to those of you that I left out, you can never think of everyone.

For those of you that are left–oh boy are you in for a treat. Cain has created in this book two characters that I will remember for the rest of my life and details a bond between them that is incomprehensible and real at the same time. First you meet Archie Sheridan, a detective that would seem cliche if not for the justifiable roots of his behaviors. A sullen man addicted to pain meds who can not balance work and the home life sounds like every other gumshoe in the genre. In fact, his melancholy is decidedly noir-ish. But what makes him one of my favorite characters in all of fiction is that we are privy to what made him this way. Instead of a false facade, a broken detective with a vague past of minor abuses, we are allowed inside the process whereby these self-destructive men are made. In gory detail we are presented with the precise steps necessary to completely dismantle good men.

Steps that obviously benefit from a lady’s touch.

Steps that could only be carried out by the sickest, most evil, vilest creature perhaps ever concocted for a disbelieving audience. Annie Wilkes from “Misery”? Mother Teresa.Hannibal Lecter? Santa Claus. Meet Gretchen Lowell, Cain’s revolting antagonist, the worst fictional abomination I have ever read about. At one point about halfway through the book, as I was lying in bed allowing this foul wench to torment my soul, I realized, looking at the unread half, that there was no guarantee that anyone was safe from her. She is locked in a prison cell and all I can think of is the nefarious nature of this most wicked author who gave birth to a hell-spawn and granted her the power to do anything within her creation. She could set her free on the inhabitants of this book. Sick her on people that I care about. I had to set the book aside for a moment and explain this horrid revelation to my confused wife (one of the people I will not recommend this book to). In short: I had become frightened. Of an imaginary character. Who had done no more than clasp a man’s wrist with her manacled hands. Yeah.

That is how good this book is. Heartsick. What a perfect name. I am only realizing it as I write this review, but what Chelsea Cain was able to do for me was to create these polar emotional opposites, further apart than I was prepared for; she forced me to feel the electrical potential between this anode of agony and cathode of catharsis. And the resulting sparks between Archie and Gretchen are the shocking, killing kind.

Because of this, I felt more pure love and pity for Archie than I have for any character since I met Ender Wiggins, 20+ years ago. At the same time Cain was able to instruct me in new levels of hatred and revulsion with Gretchen Lowell. And between these two extremes is where the book takes place. Love and Disgust. Heart and Sick. Bouncing back and forth between them was exhausting and exhilarating. It made me want to finish the book immediately and to have it go on forever. I was loving the book while I wretched repeatedly.

It wasn’t until the last page of Heartsick that I finally broke down, exhausted. And then I cried. Not because of the tenderness of a single moment, nor was it due to the culmination of a brilliant journey–it was because I was safe. I cried out of relief. I had made it through to the other side and there was nothing else that Chelsea Cain could do to me, good nor bad.

If you don’t belong to one of the myriad groups that I listed above, how can I give any higher recommendation than this? This book was an experience for me. The only complaint that I could make would be its 337 pages. Twice that would have been nice. Which makes me sound tough, I’m sure, but Chelsea has a sequel out there that I could go pick up right now and start reading. There are more pages of torment and satisfaction at my fingertips. And what am I doing to back up my call for an encore? I am wussing out for a few weeks, that’s what. I’m going to go read something else, let the wounds scar over, and wait until I am dumb enough to think I can take more.

If your hyperbole sensor is beeping, it is broken. A quoted sample of adjectives other people have used to describe Heartsick:

…twisted tale…contorted thriller…razor edged…unyielding…gory…dark, distressing, and disturbing…exquisite pain…downright gruesome…

For those of you that are rushing off to buy a copy, you should be in a database somewhere. They should be keeping tabs on you people. I have a legal right to know if you live in my neighborhood.

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