This book really grew on me. Toward the end, I didn’t want to say goodbye to the odd characters and so I rationed the reading experience to make it last a little longer.
Heft by Liz Moore was an unexpected gem. I knew nothing about it (but had picked it up because Jennifer Weiner was raving about it on Twitter), short of the jacket blurb –
“Former academic Arthur Opp weighs 550 pounds and hasn’t left his rambling Brooklyn home in a decade. Twenty miles away, in Yonkers, seventeen-year-old Kel Keller navigates life as the poor kid in a rich school and pins his hopes on what seems like a promising sporting career – if he can untangle himself from his family drama. The link between this unlikely pair is Kel’s mother, Charlene, a former student of Arthur’s. After nearly two decades of silence, it is Charlene’s unexpected phone call to Arthur – a plea for help – that jostles them into action.”
It’s tempting to focus on the character of Arthur – you’re curious to know how he became obese (and then housebound) and Moore scatters little hints along the way. The novel could have slipped into a statement about obesity as a social issue but Arthur’s frankness, gentleness and humour about his own situations steers away from this. Although I read the descriptions of what Arthur was eating with almost morbid curiosity –
“I needed consolation so I made a feast for myself. Cookies made from coconut and macadamias and white chocolate. A bowl of peanut M&M’s. A few bagels, coated obscenely with seeds and grains and tasty little granules of salt. Bagels, laden with heavy coats of butter and cream cheese, and topped with a lonesome tomato slice, red & bleeding with juice. A pitcher of whole milk with a tall glass next to it. An Oreo-crusted chocolate cake. Three hamburgers and potato salad and creamed spinach that I had delivered from the diner on Seventh Avenue. I warmed the spinach on my stove. I put a dollop of cream cheese in the center of it. White in a sea of pearly green.”
The characters of Charlene and Arthur’s house-cleaner, Yolanda, are deftly crafted but for me, Heft was all about Kel. Perhaps motherhood has made me soft but my heart just broke for Kel. He’s basically a kid just trying to fit into a school full of rich kids and trying to keep things ticking along on the home front –
“I am a senior now and have acquired invaluable knowledge of how to do things over the years. But on my first day of freshman year I had no idea. I showed up wearing red glossy basketball shorts past my knee, a plain white T-shirt that hung off my shoulders, and Nikes. As soon as we arrived I knew I’d gotten it wrong.”
Kel does what many kids whose home-life is not so fabulous do – they yo-yo between being embarrassed about their circumstances, conscious of the differences between them and their classmates, and then wanting to do well so that they can ‘save’ their families. In this case, Kel happens to be exceptionally good at baseball, with a chance to make the major league. However even his thoughts about baseball, the one thing that makes him really happy, are tinged with sadness –
“Baseball is the loneliest sport to play for someone who does not have a father. Everyone’s dad lines up behind the chain-link fence at games. Everyone’s dad has a catch with them in the backyard. Everyone’s dad tells them stories about great games and teams and players. Pounds them with phrases like ‘Keep your eye on the ball. Swing through, swing through.’…”
The scenes involving Kel, his classmates and friends are so simple and so perfect you wonder where Moore ranked in the high-school popularity stakes – the accuracy is breathtakingly poignant. Geez, who’d want to be a teenager again?!
Two tiny, tiny quibbles with Heft. Firstly, in Arthur’s chapters, the ampersand is used instead of the word ‘and’. I know this is just a style twist but I found it distracting. The character voices were strong enough without distinguishing the points-of-view in this way. Secondly, I think Moore over-complicated the ending. By the last few chapters you are so heavily invested in the characters emotionally, that Moore could have gone with a very soft but satisfactory ‘landing’ – instead it was a little tricked-up.
Through all of the main characters (Arthur, Charlene, Kel and Yolanda), Heft is a book that shows you how, despite appearances, some people are barely holding themselves together. Moore has done an incredible job of making the reader become cheerleaders for all of them – it’s pretty difficult to write a story without a character that you can easily identify as the ‘enemy’ but in doing so, Moore has you right until the very end.
I looked for the most indulgent, over-the-top, chocolately treat I could find to pair with Heft. Whilst tempted by a Chocolate Meringue Cake and Oreo Marshmallows, I finally settled on the Heartattack Brownie – make at your own risk!
4/5 Actually, probably 4.5… Had I not read it so soon after The Art of Fielding, I might have given it a 5. Either way, read it. Truly wonderful.