Book Review: Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker

Heartbroke – Chelsea Bieker (Catapult, 2022)

I received an Advance Reading Copy of this book. All opinions are my own. Publication date: 5 April 2022

As many do, I tend to picture California as a land of wealth and excess. Sun, surf, beautiful people. But of course California is large and full of many regions and not all who live there dwell in a glittering paradise. Chelsea Bieker’s short story collection is set in the Central Valley of California. Her characters are working class, most often living in poverty. The teens and children who people her stories are largely limited in their futures – quite often by their own parents. The adults are stuck in the same towns where they grew up, sometimes crime seeming to be their only escape. The stories are somewhat linked, joined by their location but also with a few characters popping up in more than one story. I thought this was done well and gave those characters an extra depth as we got to see them from more than one perspective. Bieker uses a variety of characters and perspectives and though the stories shared a similar tone, they all felt distinct too.

In “Cowboys and Angels”, our narrator seems to become increasingly unhinged (or perhaps we increasingly recognize her insane behaviour) as she pursues a cowboy she believes she is destined to be with. “Say Where She Is” details the sort of intense and suffocating friendship of teen girls that many of us might recognize, with the narrator slowly revealing what she really knows about her best friend’s disappearance. In “Keep Her Down” two women – ex-wives of the same man – move in together to care for the special needs sister of one of them. A theme that runs through the collection is a character (a mother or a sister usually) caring for someone else when they are entirely incapable of doing so and can barely take care of their own needs. Bieker treats these characters gently though; these are stories of abuse, no doubt, and at times are hard to read. But despite the obvious failings of these caregivers, Bieker deftly reveals the ways that they in turn have been failed. How can you learn to be a parent when you yourself were never cared for?

Dare I say that this was a heartbreaking collection? That is, in the end, the word that best comes to mind. Heartbroke is peopled with characters who cannot escape. Who do not know how to escape. Who, when they try to escape, are pulled back in with greater violence. Many of them are despicable but Bieker writes them so well and so honestly that I so badly wanted them to succeed, to be happy, to be a little less heartbroken.

19 thoughts on “Book Review: Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker”

  1. This sounds really interesting! Like you I tend to think of California as wealthy and glamorous, but I believe it’s technically larger than the whole land mass of the United Kingdom, so really I should know better than to think it’s homogenous. That’s very impressive writing on the author’s part to make characters doing despicable things still seem human and nuanced.

    1. I always think the same about California but it is really large! And I believe has a larger population than all of Canada. So there’s bound to be some variety. I was really impressed by the author, who I hadn’t heard of previously.

  2. Terrific review. I’ve added this to my list, even though the stories sound so terribly sad. I think of California as a place for the rich and beautiful, too but of course that is only the glamourous, publicised version.

    1. Thank you! That is sort of the picture of California, isn’t it? It’s fascinating to get a glimpse into this other world.

  3. Since about 2010 I’ve thought of California as prohibitively expensive, with people living on top of each other. I also picture being on fire most of the time. If I really stretch my mind, I’ll remember things like the grape growing area in Northern California. When I was still in grad school, I met a few Californians in the program. Both of them had lived with many roommates, either friends they knew or their families. Both talked about how they couldn’t afford rent on their own. I felt bad because the one guy had just gotten married, and he still had to live with his parents. The other woman talked about how rent was about $1,800 per month, and she had something like six roommates.

    1. You’ve reminded me that in university I met a girl who grew up on a raisin farm in California. And I think of fires and droughts now too when I think of California. When I think of high cost of living, my mind primarily goes to Sam Francisco but I know it’s like that all over the place, which actually explains some of the characters in these stories.

    2. Hahaha! You’re right…she definitely specified it as a raising farm so maybe different kinds of grapes? I have no clue.

    3. My great-aunt told me we had a relative from way back in the day who ran off and disappeared only to be found years later in the western U.S. with a popcorn farm. I was like, “Uh….isn’t he a corn farmer then??” Must be specific corn, because I know a lot of the stuff we grow around here isn’t edible for humans.

    4. That would probably be my exact reaction too! The stuff grow around you…is it for animal consumption? Or some sort of manufacturing? I am pretty ignorant about farming

    5. A few years ago I read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned how many ways we use corn and how much we put corn in things you wouldn’t think have corn in them (corn syrup especially).

  4. It’s because California tends to elect Republican Governors, even if they’re often film-stars, that made me realise it’s not all “liberal elite” and tinseltown. These sound too heart-breaking for me at this point, but I shall bear them in mind for if life ever stops being quite so nerve-wracking!

  5. I think I share the same beliefs of California that you do Karissa (or at least – did). I had no idea so many people lived there! And like Melanie, I now associate it with wildfires alot too. Although now that I think of it, I’m starting to associate BC with wildfires as well! Which makes me sad.

    1. Peter reminded me this morning of that classic show The O.C. which obviously shows the discrepancy of rich and poor in California. I associate the state with wildfire and drought too.

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