For Hadley Dunn, life so far has been uneventful – no great loves, no searing losses. But that’s before she decides to spend a year studying in the glittering Swiss city of Lausanne, a place that feels alive with promise. Here Hadley meets Kristina, a beautiful but elusive Danish girl, and the two quickly form the strongest of bonds. Yet one November night, as the first snows of winter arrive, tragedy strikes. Hadley, left reeling and guilt-stricken, beings to lean on the only other person to whom she feels close, her American Literature professor Joel Wilson. But as the pair try to uncover the truth of what happened that night, their tentative friendship heads into forbidden territory. And before long a line is irrevocably crossed, everything changes, and two already complicated lives take an even more dangerous course…
I enjoyed A Heart Bent Out of Shape. It’s clear that Lausanne has a very special place in Emylia Hall’s heart, and her descriptions of the city are gorgeous – they made me want to visit Switzerland immediately! The sense of place, a city so perfect and its inhabitants so poised, contrasted beautifully with the naivety of Hadley Dunn. The tragedy at the centre of the story complicates her bold steps towards independence.
At times I found Hadley sweetly endearing, at others incredibly frustrating. Her desire to take in all of her new experience studying abroad is gorgeous; she grasps the opportunity to meet new people and see new places. Her friendship with Hugo Bezier, an old gentleman with many stories to tell, exemplified this for me. She strikes up conversation with the most interesting person in the room despite convention or appearance. The other side of this is how completely she falls under Kristina’s spell. On the surface Kristina is fascinating and compelling, but she also completely dominates Hadley’s attention. Hadley’s adventure quickly revolves around Kristina and she makes less effort to widen her circle of friends. The closeness between them is a little one-sided; Kristina has another life without Hadley, which she guards more carefully than such a close friendship would suggest.
The circumstances of the tragedy that changes Hadley’s year abroad also leave her feeling in some way responsible. Her way of dealing with it is to search out the truth of the incident and seek Kristina’s mysterious boyfriend. I partly sympathise with her need to understand something so sudden and final, but I couldn’t help thinking she was somehow wallowing in the drama of the situation. I might be being incredibly unfair to the character but she does make it all harder for herself and others. Her quest is jumbled with an ill-advised relationship with her professor, neither of which seemed to hold out much hope for her.
There are some lovely moments in the book where Hall really taps into emotions. Hadley’s grief makes her restless, and her bookcase fills up with ‘infinitely precious’ objects that embody treasured memories. After a disagreement Hadley can’t shake off the mood as ‘she wasn’t grown up enough to feel her way deftly back into equanimity.’ My first thought was, who is? The book also got me thinking about the difference between surface and reality; it’s a theme that crops up quite often in the story both with individuals and with the place itself.
A Heart Bent Out of Shape has enough twists to keep the story intriguing, and I wasn’t sure how it would be resolved. Although there is a lot of snow and wintry weather it would make a compelling holiday read – it has that sense of adventure being somewhere ‘not home’ affords and a page-turner of a plot.
The book is available now in paperback from Headline Review. It is the first book I’ve received and reviewed through the publisher’s new Bookbridgr initiative.