December 2003

Melissa Roy

fiction

Heart, You Bully, You Punk by Leah Hager Cohen

Leah Hager Cohenís Heart, You Bully, You Punk is a gem of a novel. Itís very rare, even when I like a book, that I become attached to it, invested in it, enamored of it. I was beginning to think, actually, that part of growing up was ceasing to be absorbed in the words, scenes, characters, or plots of the literary world -- it was beginning to seem, too often, that the world had battered and bruised my imagination and stifled my passion to the point that I was no longer able to enjoy books as intensely, as viscerally as I had when I was a child. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, Cohenís book has proved me wrong.

I did enjoy Heart with the enthusiasm of my youth, coming back to it in every free moment over my Thanksgiving holiday; I stayed up entirely too late because I couldnít put it down, I ate several meals with the book next to me, glancing back and forth between the pages and my food, I stole pieces of the story while waiting for my hair to dry after a shower. It was like savoring every possible moment with a dear friend whoís leaving soon, one you know you will miss when sheís gone. More importantly, though, I enjoyed it on an entirely adult level as well. Ms. Cohenís prose is virtually flawless, eliciting bursts of laughter and tugging at the heart strings, perfectly complementing and enhancing an interesting and unique story.

Heart is a novel about, of course, the heart. Itís about the passion of life and the numbness of life. Itís about feeling too big and too small for the world around you. It might be fiction, but it rings true on so many levels. Cohen takes the feelings that exist inside the hearts and minds of her characters and spills them onto the page in the most potent way possible by making them physical. The passion and desire of Ann James, a high school student, causes her to be ďnudged from the insideĒ and leap off the bleachers, breaking her heels and thus confining her to her house for the remainder of her fall semester. Her teacher, I.J. Esker, recognizes that passion, that confusion, that unreasonable excitement, because she herself felt it once. As Esker becomes involved with Wally James, Annís father, her own feelings of heaviness and her determination that she is too large for the world, that her own heart is too heavy for anyone else to carry, will bring her full circle into an understanding with Ann.

The characters are all beautifully fleshed out, revealed in bits to the reader as the story unfolds in both the present time and in the recollections of the characters. Their specific circumstances may not ring true to the reader, but Cohenís prose, her descriptions, and her one-liner accuracies about the nature of the human heart ensure that the reader will feel them as if they were. I found myself wishing that the ending of the book had been a bit stronger, in keeping with the strength of the rest of the book, but it is forgivable and understandable that Cohen ended it the way she did.

This is a beautiful book -- beautifully conceived, beautifully composed -- and I would highly recommend it. It didnít change my life and probably wonít change yours, but it did give me encouragement, letting me know that there are gifted and intelligent writers with wonderful stories to be found -- I hope that it can do the same for you.

Heart, You Bully, You Punk by Leah Hager Cohen
Viking
ISBN 0670031674
214 pages