Dysfunction and danger drive Lisa Unger’s latest thriller

“Heartbroken,” by Lisa Unger. Crown/Random House. 384 pages. $24.00.

By now, readers of my columns know that I view Lisa Unger as one of our foremost younger novelists writing today. She works with, not merely within, the conventions of genre in amazing ways. She probes the psychological dimensions of her characters with tremendous empathy and acumen. Her plotting reminds me of fine architecture, at once functional and esthetically dazzling. On top of all this, she is a superb stylist. 

The richness of “Heartbroken” comes from many sources. One of these is the novel’s insights into troubled family dynamics. Another is Ms. Unger’s ability to etch vivid, fully-realized characters across the spectrum of age and experience. Yet another is her uncanny skill at mood-building, in this case the several moods of Heart Island, the rampant moodiness of teenagers, the alternating moods – internal and external – of sunlight and storm.

Fortyish Kate, gifted by her late Aunt Caroline with not only Caroline’s private journals but also those of Lana, Caroline’s mother, has come through on the other side of her “only-a-mom” existence. She has fashioned a novel rooted in those journals, which hold family secrets. It is about to be published. Reluctantly, Kate is bringing her family for one of the annual trips to the family’s summer home – a private island on a lake in upstate New York. Kate will try once again to establish a healthy relationship with her harshly judgmental mother, Birdie Burke, who is the human embodiment of the rocky retreat.

Kate’s teenage daughter Chelsea, persuaded that she’ll have fun because she can bring along her promiscuous best friend Lulu, subdues her reluctance. Chelsea’s younger half-brother Brendan has an accident and will come up later with Sean, Brendan’s father. Sean, after a bad year in real estate, has a fantastic new listing to put on the market that will delay his arrival on Heart Island for a day or two. He really doesn’t want to go at all. He and everyone else fear the encounter with the rigid, endlessly disapproving Birdie. 

Lisa Unger

On a separate plot track, readers meet twentyish Emily, a college dropout waitressing in a restaurant and becoming fearful about her relationship with Dean, a no-account slacker who flatters and frightens her into doing his bidding. Disaster strikes when Dean and his friend Brad connive to have Emily assist them in robbing the restaurant where she works. Now they are on the lam, having seriously injured Carol, the owner, and killed another employee. Emily had told Dean about a remote lake island where they can hide out. She remembers having had some good times there as a young child.

Kate and Emily, then, are headed to the same place. For Kate, the journey carries the heavy weight of obligation; for Emily, it carries a fragile hope of escape and, somewhat irrationally, of redemption. Readers will have to find out why Emily’s last name is Burke. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the June 27, 2012 Fort Myers Florida Weekly, in the June 28 Naples and Spacecoast editions, and in the July 5 Bonita Springs edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Heartbroken pdf

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