Title: Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Genre: Historical (70s & 80s), Literary Fiction, Mystery/Suspense
Length: 320 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
“Love can make people do terrible things.”
Welcome to Spencerville, Virginia, 1977. Eight-year-old Rocky worships his older brother, Paul. Sixteen and full of rebel cool, Paul spends his days cruising in his Chevy Nova blasting Neil Young, cigarette dangling from his lips, arm slung around his beautiful, troubled girlfriend. Paul is happy to have his younger brother as his sidekick. Then one day, in an act of vengeance against their father, Paul picks up Rocky from school and nearly abandons him in the woods. Afterward, Paul disappears.
Seven years later, Rocky is a teenager himself. He hasn’t forgotten being abandoned by his boyhood hero, but he’s getting over it, with the help of the wealthy neighbors’ daughter, ten years his senior, who has taken him as her lover. Unbeknownst to both of them, their affair will set in motion a course of events that rains catastrophe on both their families. After a mysterious double murder brings terror and suspicion to their small town, Rocky and his family must reckon with the past and find out how much forgiveness their hearts can hold.
Utilizing an array of classic rock music as a backdrop, Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington is a captivating coming of age novel set in the ’70s & ’80s.
Richard “Rocky” Askew adores and idolizes his much older half-brother Paul. Viewed as the small town’s resident bad boy, Paul has earned his reputation with his devil may care attitude and his penchant for smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Despite the age gap between the brothers, they are close and many of their conversations and exploits take place while listening to Neil Young and other artists of the time period. The defining moment of Rocky’s young life occurs when Paul “kidnaps” him then briefly abandons him in the woods before taking him home then leaving town with his girlfriend, Leigh Bowman. Leigh eventually returns to town while Paul’s whereabouts remain a mystery for several years.
Rocky’s childhood is privileged and rather idyllic despite Paul’s disappearance. His father, aka “the Old Man”, is much older than Rocky’s mother and while a bit gruff, he is a good father. Paul’s rebellion is a source of contention between his parents and in an effort to ensure Rocky does not follow in his rebellious footsteps, Rocky’s ultra religious mom keeps him on a fairly tight leash. As a teenager, he manages to escape from her watchful eye after he convinces their neighbor’s older daughter, Patricia Culver, to hire him as a stable boy/groundskeeper. Patricia also introduces him to pleasures of a more earthly type when they begin an illicit affair.
Unbeknownst to Rocky, Paul’s ex-girlfriend Leigh also has an unexpected tie to the Culver family; she is engaged to their much older son, Charles. Despite her upcoming marriage, Leigh’s life has not gone smoothly since her return to town. Rumors swirl around the small town about her fragile mental state and her time “resting” in a local mental hospital. Their reunion is uneasy and fraught with tension and Rocky is somewhat taken aback when she decides to reveal what happened after she and Paul left together years earlier. Stunned by her revelations, Rocky is unsure if her account is true and he is left with even more doubts after the events that occur during her wedding.
After the Old Man suffers a debilitating stroke, the mystery of Paul’s disappearance is cleared up once and for all. This also marks the beginning of a downward spiral for the Askew family after they discover the Old Man’s business venture with the Culvers led to the loss of their fortune after the Black Monday stock market crash. Although still neighbors, they ignore one another until a shocking double murder thrusts both families (and Leigh) back into the spotlight.
An absolutely stunning debut novel , Only Love Can Break Your Heart is an engrossing and nostalgic story set in rural Virginia. Brilliantly developed, multifaceted and intriguing characters bring this tale vibrantly to life while the riveting storyline completely ensnares readers from beginning to end. Ed Tarkington neatly wraps up all of the loose ends with a heartwarming and rather poignant conclusion. A phenomenal novel that I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend.