The Death Of The Heart / Elizabeth Bowen

Published in 1938, The Death of the Heart tells the story of an adolescent thrust into a new world following the death of her parents. The sixteen-year-old orphaned Portia Quayne moves into the home of her much older half-brother. What she finds in this new home is a troubled marriage where her brother’s wife remains cold and aloof, regarding the young girl as an intrusion into the household’s complex dynamics.

Still grieving from her mother’s recent death, Portia keenly feels the sense of rejection in her new surroundings. To assuage her loneliness, she bonds with a housekeeper who knew her father. She also falls in love with the first person that expresses a romantic interest. At age twenty-three, this young man is quite a bit older than she. He also turns out to be a bit of a bounder, but fortunately one who knows better than to destroy her innocence.

What makes this novel a delight to read is that it does not focus only on Portia, but also on the adults in her life. While a coming of age story, it broadens to encompass the other viewpoints as well. Thanks to Portia’s arrival in their lives, these adults are forced to acknowledge their own disappointments and come to terms with the directions their lives have taken.

The reader might suppose the “heart” that is dying in this novel belongs to Portia. However, Bowen shows that the “heart” can be threatened throughout life. The Death of the Heart captures the confusion and innocence of childhood, as well as the complexities that adult life brings. The author has created a host of characters here that remain likable despite their flaws. A quiet book that unfolds without resorting to unneeded dramatics, it speaks directly to the reader’s heart.

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