Vida is a nineteen year-old girl who suffers from a heart condition. She’s in hospital waiting for a transplant – time is running out, but before Vida can get a new heart, a potential donor needs to die. That donor turns out to be car crash victim Lorrie Buckner Bailey. When Lorrie’s grieving husband, Richard, decides to visit the girl who received his wife’s heart, Vida falls in love with him. But is it really Vida herself who loves Richard – or is it Lorrie’s heart?
I really enjoyed this book. It could easily have been a slushy, sentimental romance, but it manages to avoid that. Instead, it’s a fascinating and moving story which raises an interesting question: does cellular memory (where a transplanted organ retains the memories and characteristics of its previous owner) really exist?
The story is told in the first person, alternating between Vida and Richard. Vida’s section is in the form of a journal and she has a very intimate and conversational style, making her an engaging character. Through her journal entries we learn what it’s like to have spent your whole life preparing for death and the emotions that a person goes through on discovering that they now have a chance to live after all. After meeting Vida, Richard also begins to keep a journal and his story unfolds both through his diary entries and through his email correspondence with Vida and his mother-in-law Myra. I enjoyed watching the characters develop over the course of the book as Vida learns how to enjoy life for the first time and Richard learns how to move on with his own life following Lorrie’s death.
Although Vida and Richard are the characters we get to know best, I found the minor characters equally interesting – particularly Abigail, Vida’s worried, over-protective mother, and Esther, her elderly neighbour who survived life in a concentration camp during World War II.
The style of writing used in this book, with very simplistic or incomplete sentences, would usually irritate me – and it did at times – but it was actually perfectly suited to the story and helped give the impression that Vida and Richard were talking directly to the reader via their diaries. The writing style, together with the very short chapters, makes this a quick and easy read, despite it being quite a long book. There are some detailed descriptions of heart surgery but nothing too gory for those of you who are squeamish (Catherine Ryan Hyde says in her author’s note that she was given the rare opportunity to actually observe a heart operation whilst researching this book). Whether or not you believe in the theory of cellular memory Second Hand Heart is an interesting and thought provoking story.
I received a review copy of this book from Transworld Publishers as part of their Summer Reading Challenge.