Sixteen year old Clementine Williams has done something unforgivable and she's hoping her family's summer cruise will help her forget the terrible end to her sophomore year.
Clementine along with her parents and her ten year old sister, Olive, are sailing part of what is known as "The Loop" in their new forty-two foot Catalina three-cabin Pullman named The Possibility. This is a sailing route that encompasses the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River down to Gulf, across to Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.
Clem's family doesn't know what exactly has happened to her in the last two weeks of school, but they know that Clem is upset and withdrawn. As their sailing voyage begins, her family tries to help Clem by encouraging her to be with her family. On their stop at the marina in Peoria, Clem is sent to get groceries. At the marina shop she collides with a tall, blue-eyed, redhead boy named James Townsend causing him to spill his basket of bananas. They have a brief, humorous conversation but Clem resolves not to get involved with him. She also meets an elderly couple at this marina, named Ruth and George. These three people end up helping Clem work through what has happened to her.
Clem's narrative alternates between describing what is currently happening in her life as her family sails part of The Loop, and flashbacks of what happened between her and her best friend, Amanda during her sophomore year at Bishop Heights High School. Readers will quickly guess that the trouble involves a boy. That boy is Ethan, an cute new guy who arrives at their school.
Clem believes that because of what she has done, she is a bad person and that no one will ever like her. Because of her fear of how others will judge her, at first Clem decides she will not do anything to encourage James. However this doesn't really work because Clem and James' parents form a friendship that results in the two families spending a lot of time together as they both sail the Loop. But both Clem and James are keeping secrets, Clem about what happened between her and Amanda, and James about his family.
As Clem's relationship with James develops, she begins to put into perspective what happened, to evaluate the meaning of friendship, and also to realize that she is not the only one to blame for what happened.
Unbreak My Heart is about one girl's journey to self-forgiveness and about dealing with the mistakes of youth. Various characters give their perspective on what happened between Clem and Amanda and readers ultimately have to decide how they feel about what happened. Clem also considers the reality of her friendship with Amanda,how it is changing as they approach college and how this might have affected Amanda.
The true strength of this novel is in the characters and their relationships with one another. Young adult literature is often plagued by what is known as the "parent problem" where a young person is left to fend for themselves because mom and/or dad are experiencing serious problems or absent. Walker doesn't take this approach however, instead opting to give her young protagonist a caring family who are willing to support her and show her unconditional love through a troubled period in her life.Clem's parents are willing to give her space and time to work through whatever is bothering her and they don't pry.
Clem's younger sister, Olive is an endearing character, who looks up to Clem and helps her put things in perspective. Clem describes Olive as her "family's little adult", having an attitude and the insight of a much older person. Olive serves to remind Clem of her good points and why she is not a bad person. And in fact the way Clem treats her much younger sister is proof that she is not a bad person. She is kind to her and lets her hang out with her when her friendship with James begins.
The relationship Clem has with James is very different from what she had with Ethan. James is upbeat, kind and more sensitive as to how Clem feels. He recognizes that Clem is deeply saddened by something and it surprises Clem when she discovers that he knows this about her. Ethan, on the other hand, never seemed to clue into how Clem was feeling or if he did, he ignored them.
My only complaint about this novel is the message conveyed through the elderly couple, Ruth and George. Clem assumes that they have been married for years only to learn that George left his wife of 30 years to be with Ruth because "it was meant to be". Ruth tells Clem and Olive that their relationship is "true love".The implication here is that only true love (whatever that means) matters, that the vows we make to one another can be discarded, making them in effect, pointless. Ruth dishonours George's wife, Linda, by calling her his "girlfriend" rather than acknowledging that Linda was in fact, his wife of 30 years. At the end of all this, impressionable Olive concludes that none of this matters, as long as they are happy together, a sad dismissal of the value of fidelity and the promise to love even when the desire to do so is no longer easy to come by.
Overall, Unbreak My Heart is an engaging read that draws the reader in from the very beginning through the desire to learn what really happened between Clem and Amanda. Well written and evenly paced this is a very good story.
Unbreak My Heart by Melissa Walker
New York: Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers 2012