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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Strike Your Heart

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Strike Your Heart

Title: Strike Your Heart
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Strike Your Heart - US
Strike Your Heart - UK
Strike Your Heart - Canada
Frappe-toi le cœur - Canada
Frappe-toi le cœur - France
Colpisci il tuo cuore - Italia
  • French title: Frappe-toi le cœur
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nimble, and intriguing mix of light and dark

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2018 Charlotte Shane
Libération . 25/8/2017 Claire Devarrieux
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/12/2018 Elisabeth Zerofsky
Sunday Times . 23/9/2018 David Mills
The Washington Post A- 10/9/2018 M.Langevine Leiby

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nothomb is at her best when she luxuriates in the crevices of an emotion’s rational irrationality, but Strike Your Heart never settles down long enough to excavate much of anything a character feels. (...) Nothomb’s attention to Diane is obligatory, automatic. Even her unexotic name indicates a sort of authorial fatigue; she’s a goddess, sure, but not an interesting one. Perhaps beauty and adversity are no longer a combination sufficient for inspiring Nothomb’s respect, which leaves Diane unloved by both her mothers. (...) Strike Your Heart isn’t very good, but I think that’s OK." - Charlotte Shane, Bookforum

  • "Unfortunately, perhaps because Nothomb writes so quickly, her characters feel uninhabited, their feelings simmered down to bare fundaments rather than rendered real, with humor employed to skip over any deeper complications of relationships rather than to pan them for what is interesting and true. In the end Nothomb’s writing is fablelike, so that when the threads of the story converge into a morality tale, as those who have suffered and been wronged find revenge and solace in one another" - Elisabeth Zerofsky, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Il y est question de cardiologie, mais surtout de passions. C’est un livre merveilleux, pas gai, où s’exerce le génie de l’enfance. (...) Le ton du conte cède la place à la psychologie la plus réaliste et la plus fine" - Claire Devarrieux, Libération

  • "Strike Your Heart is a disarmingly simple yet deeply complex study of a mother-daughter relationship and its lifelong implications. The title is apt: The reader viscerally feels the book’s psychological blows. (...) Pain radiates throughout these pages, sometimes to the point of feeling like overkill. The worst bad-mother tropes drop like anvils. But one can overlook this heavy-handedness to wade into the rivers of heartbreak that Nothomb so exquisitely navigates. (...) Strike Your Heart is a finely honed, piercing novel." - Michele Langevine Leiby, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Many of Amélie Nothomb's novels focus closely on a character in a particular time and place of her life, often then expanding on specific circumstances -- a particular relationship or significant encounter -- but not beyond. Her novels tend to be of a stage (or even just episode) in their lives. Though it is no longer than her usual novel, Strike Your Heart goes down a different, much longer and more winding path -- to the extent that it jolts with its repeated shifts: readers used to Nothomb's novels likely expect her to settle in on one character or situation and build around it, but instead there's repeated wholesale change. This begins with the story beginning with teenage Marie: Strike Your Heart is a life-story, but, despite Marie being front and center as the novel opens the novel soon shifts to focusing on its actual protagonist, Marie's daughter Diane.
       The beautiful Marie has ambitions, certain of a greater life ahead -- even if it remains indefinite in her imagination. As Nothomb nicely puts it:

Marie did not name her anticipation; she savored the infinity of it.
       Self-absorbed, she revels in the jealousy of others -- and even more so when their envy turns to hatred: "she thrilled to the pleasure of their gaze". Desirable, she can have any of the local boys she wants, and when she sees how well-liked the "most handsome boy in town", Olivier, is, she gives herself to him -- though her desire does not lie with or in him, but rather in arousing the jealousy of others. Marie gets knocked up, and the couple marry; by the time she's twenty, she's a mother:
I'm twenty and it's already over. How can youth be so short ? My story lasted only six months.
       Marie does not take what she sees as her fall well. While pregnant, she escapes into sleep, the easiest method of avoidance:
For nine months she did not have one thought for the baby. Which she was right to do, because if she had thought about it, she would have despised it. Some instinctive precaution wanted her to experience pregnancy as a long absence.
       Marie doesn't take to the child, either. Indeed, she barely takes notice of the child, Diane, beyond the most perfunctory obligatory care-giving -- though her parents and her husband dote on the beautful baby. It is mainly an issue of jealousy: Marie can't stand that her daughter receives such fawning attention, as she wants to be the center of it all, always. It's not even a matter of sharing the limelight: for Marie it's as important that what's around her is put in the shadows as that the spotlight is on her.
       Eventually, Olivier convinces Marie to come work for him in his successful pharmacy, and to let her parents take care of Diane during the day. It works out well for everyone: the grandparents adore their granddaughter, while Marie blossoms in her working role. She does not, however, become a better mother.
       The narrative then shifts more to Diane's perspective, Nothomb artfully presenting the infant's point of view. Diane longs for maternal affection, but the: "indifferent goddess" is sparing in even just any attention:
This woman belonged so entirely to a foreign species that she managed to touch her without touching her, to look at her without seeing her.
       The smart young girl, longing for maternal love, tries to make sense of her mother's attitude and behavior. Her understanding and loving grandparents explain that Marie is jealous, and for a while Diane can work with that.
       A second child is born -- a boy, Nicholas -- and, surprisingly, Marie is able to show him considerable affection. Toddler Diane has to reassess her mother's behavior. Surprisingly, she doesn't feel any jealousy herself, that her brother gets the maternal love and attention that was withheld from her. Among her rationalizations: her brother is a boy, so their mother has no reason to be jealous.
       So certain is Diane of her explanation that when her mother becomes pregnant again she prays the child is another boy, fearing that a girl would suffer the same fate she has. But Marie gives birth to a second daughter, Célia, -- and, shockingly, displays nothing but joy, immediately completely devoted to and enamored of this being. It shatters Diane's world -- "The explanation I have given for the workings of the universe is crumbling" -- and:
     In that moment Diane stopped being a child. She did not become an adolescent or an adult: she was five years old. She was transformed into a disenchanted creature who was obsessed with not foundering in the abyss that this situation had created inside her.
       Nothomb doesn't stack everything against Diane; indeed, there's a great deal of support and love elsewhere -- though not in her immediate biological vicinity, as even her father, who does love her, is blinded by the situation. Still, her grandparents take a parental role, for as long as they can, and Diane is a loving older sister to her siblings. It's not normalcy -- and Célia comes to suffer from being so smothered with love by Marie -- but Diane manages to establish herself.
       Diane must repeatedly reëstablish herself, however; the solution of her staying with her grandparents, for example, only lasts so long. But alternatives are found, and stand-offish Diane even makes a close and lasting friend at school, Élisabeth. All the while, Diane is an exemplary student -- always: "A well-adjusted little girl, who hid her wound well".
       Diane sets her mind on becoming a doctor, and begins her medical studies -- and there finds another important female figure, Olivia, an assistant professor, whom she becomes attached and devoted to. Olivia is a mother-substitute of sorts, encouraging the young woman -- while Diane has been so used to making sacrifices and adapting to others' demands and expectations that she willingly goes along with some of Olivia's less reasonable peculiarities.
       It takes Diane a while to see through Olivia, who is far from perfect herself -- even as she has shaped her life to the expectations of the society (academic and social) she wants to move in, complete with an impressive academic (but hilariously otherwise practically in-human) husband and even a child -- a daughter Diane comes to empathize with and, in turn, become a mother figure for.
       Nothomb doesn't settle on simple dynamics here, as the characters constantly shift paths and show themselves in different lights. Even Marie emerges, after a long absence, in Diane's life again -- seeking help with Célia, of course, but at least showing some awareness of how she herself has contributed to the problem(s). Diane is fairly grounded in her own certainties, but the situation with Olivia, and Olivia's daughter, puts great physical demands on her, and she eats and sleeps unhealthily little. Still, she maintains a certain control -- and though she barely sees Élisabeth, her old friend at least does remain true and supportive. Throughout, where Nothomb could opt for the easy or devastating resolutions -- Diane completely taking over the mother-role with Olivia's daughter; a complete physical collapse from overdoing it -- she pulls away from them: life moves inexorably on, on a bumpy road.
       Diane finds times of satisfaction, but also finds a life that is a blur of sameness. Before she knows it:
     One morning in January she realized she was twenty-eight years old. "And if I was forty-six, what difference would it make ?" she thought, apathetically.
       Diane always finds success -- at school, at university, as a teacher, then as a practicing doctor -- and satisfaction in these, and, as with her living-arrangements from early childhood on, finds her way: not necessarily the hoped for ideal, but the best in a situation -- which often enough turns out to be very good. Diane could wallow in misery, whether as an infant who sees herself unloved by her mother or as a student, taken advantage of and even betrayed by Olivia, but she doesn't. She can't shrug these things off entirely, but she nevertheless can move forward.
       At the end, Diane having reached thirty five, Nothomb opts for a Nothombian conclusion to the novel. An abrupt turn, and drastic violent action ("Twenty stab wounds to the heart") -- but , if not peripheral, it's far enough removed from Diane directly to be a fitting piece in Diane's story, and future. Strike Your Heart is, indeed, a life-story, the story of how Diane became the person she is -- and, finally, the potential ahead, the pieces finally in place, with even the unsettling final one one she is ready for, as she welcomes this particular future with open and ready arms.
       There's a really nice flow to Strike Your Heart, as it never settles in to any one time or period, and even though many of the essentials of Diane's course are simple and straightforward -- routine is significant from early on, from living arrangements to her studies, to her whole path towards becoming a doctor later on -- the surrounding flux makes for a dynamic, rich novel that is brisk and short, yet also covers a great deal and is, emphatically, life-full.
       If parts feel abrupt, the novel's (and Diane's) constant sense of progress particularly impress; Strike Your Heart could have been expanded here and there, but even as is is an an enjoyable, satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 August 2018

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Strike Your Heart: Reviews: Amélie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

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© 2018-2024 the complete review

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