The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Frank Venturini
Published by Macmillan, Picador on November 4, 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
EVERY SUPERHERO NEEDS TO START SOMEWHERE...Dale Sampson is used to being a nonperson at his small-town Midwestern high school, picking up the scraps of his charismatic lothario of a best friend, Mack. He comforts himself with the certainty that his stellar academic record and brains will bring him the adulation that has evaded him in high school. But when an unthinkable catastrophe tears away the one girl he ever had a chance with, his life takes a bizarre turn as he discovers an inexplicable power: He can regenerate his organs and limbs.When a chance encounter brings him face to face with a girl from his past, he decides that he must use his gift to save her from a violent husband and dismal future. His quest takes him to the glitz and greed of Hollywood, and into the crosshairs of shadowy forces bent on using and abusing his gift. Can Dale use his power to redeem himself and those he loves, or will the one thing that finally makes him special be his demise? The Heart Does Not Grow Back is a darkly comic, starkly original take on the superhero tale, introducing an exceptional new literary voice in Fred Venturini.
I couldn’t put this book down. I’ll start with that. And when I went to set up my review for it, and I had to assign it a genre, I really didn’t know what to put it as. The closest thing I can compare it to genre-wise is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. That is science fiction, but the story is not really so much about the science fiction aspect of it, rather the science-fiction element is more of what sets up the story, puts the characters in the situations. I’m sure there are other examples as well, but this one sprang to mind. The Heart Does Not Grow Back is very similar in that respect. Human regeneration. Is that science fiction? I guess it is as it certainly isn’t factual science. And yes, there would not be a story without that element. But the story is more about the people, about relationships, hardships, healing and surviving. It’s about how even if you can regenerate your internal organs, there is more that needs to heal to really feel whole.
In 6th grade Dale Sampson is a quiet outsider. He spends his time alone, sitting by himself at recess. But a turn of events makes him unlikely best friends with Mack Tucker, the boy every boy wants to be and the boy every girl wants to date. They both have the ability to see each other for who they really are and not who they are defined to be by their reputations. Dale has found a true friend in Mack, but even as years go by, he still seems isolated from the rest of his peers.
There are a couple of incidents where there is some evidence of Dale’s ability to heal, but not until he is faced with real tragedy is the true extent of his ability really understood. There are so many ways a story could go with a character that can regenerate body parts. The author could turn him into some sort of famed stunt man who takes real bullets to get more realistic footage, they could make him a daring superhero who runs into fires to save kittens and babies and old people. Most of the things I can think of would take it to a more action-movie style. This is not that. I don’t want to say too much about the path it does take, but I loved it. It does examine a bit how it ‘should’ be used, is there some sort of responsibility on his part to do more because of his ‘gift’?
This book is definitely dark. I really liked Dale, he has a wonderful sense of dark and sarcastic humor, but have to admit he is not a happy protagonist, he is awkward and uncomfortable. He is also borderline obsessive about relationships that never even existed. But that’s the thing. This book really highlights that healing is about so much more than just tissue repair. Dale is damaged and broken despite being a ‘superhero’. Highly recommend it for those who enjoy dark, character driven stories.