Thursday, June 4, 2015

Things We Know By Heart by Jessi Kirby

Seventeen year old Quinn Sullivan's life stopped the day her boyfriend, Trent's heart stopped. Trent was killed in a motorcycle accident outside his house, just doors down from where Quinn lives. Devastated and unable to deal with his death, she missed prom, walked out of her graduation ceremony and missed college applications in the year after Trent's death. Trent's organs were donated to various people. Under the Life Alliance Donor Family Services Program recipients of organs or the family of organ donors can reach out to one another at any time through the transplant coordinator.

Quinn wrote five letters to five recipients of Trent's organs and sent them to the transplant coordinator. She received letters from four of them and met four of them; Norah Walker who got Trent's lungs, Luke Palmer who got a kidney, John Williamson who received his liver and Ingrid Stone who had a cornea transplant. But the donor who received Trent's heart never responded, so Quinn decided to start looking for that person in order to heal herself.

She matched up news stories and hospitals with dates to find out that the person who received Trent's heart was nineteen year old Colton Thomas of Shelter Cover, a town thirty-six miles away from where Quinn lives. Now 400 days after Trent's death and still unable to come to terms with this fact, Quinn finds herself driving to Shelter Cove to find him. Quinn learned from a blog that Colton's sister, Shelby wrote, that he was fourteen when his heart began to fail. By the time he was seventeen he required a heart transplant and went on the list. Quinn tells herself, "I won't interfere with his life. I won't talk to him, not even to hear the sound of his voice. He won't even know I exist."

However, when she goes into a cafe, The Secret Spot, just a few doors down from Colton's family's sports shop, Good Clean Fun, Quinn unexpectedly encounters Colton. Colton comes into the cafe after having been out surfing and his sudden appearance causes Quinn to choke on her coffee knock over her cup of coffee and make a mess. All this leads to Quinn's first interaction with the boy she swore wouldn't know she existed. This Colton is not like the Colton in Shelby's blog; he is tan with beautiful green eyes, and "vibrant, and healthy". In an attempt to flee the scene before more damage is done, Quinn races out of the cafe, gets in her car and promptly rear-ends the blue VW van in front of her. Having hit her mouth on the steering wheel, Quinn needs stitches and Colton offers to take her to the hospital. Horrified at this turn of events, she leaves a note on the car windshield and allows Colton to drive her to the hospital.

Quinn's parents are shocked when she returns home, seeing the three stitches on her lip. She is unable to answer their questions in detail and doesn't tell them why she went to Shelter Cove. The next day while Quinn is alone in the house, Colton visits her, bringing a lovely sunflower, reminding her of Trent's gift to her. It turns out the VW van she hit was his and between her note and the hospital, Colton, like Quinn did, has searched her out. Quinn is conflicted at Colton's presence and at first tells him she can't see him again but then relents.

The next morning Quinn brings a plate of brownies she and her Gran made, over to Colton as a way of thanking him for helping her after her fender-bender. Colton convinces Quinn to allow him to spend the day with her and show her a nice, isolated beach. He questions her, "...So what if we relax and enjoy it? Have one really good day?" They drive to a little known beach where he teaches her how to kayak and then shows her a hidden cave, accessible only by kayak. When Quinn comes home after this beautiful day spent with Colton, she finds that her older sister Ryan is home. Instead of flying over to Europe with her boyfriend, Ethan, Ryan was dumped by him. Sporting a new hair cut and tiny jewel piercing in her nose, Ryan along with Gran, Quinn's mom and dad encourage her to return for a second kayak "lesson".

Ryan also suggests to Quinn that she take down all the pictures of Trent around her mirror but Quinn feels that if she does this "the little details about Trent will start to fade." Ryan tells her that she is making it hard for herself to move on and that they are worried about her being determined to find the guy who received Trent's heart. To help herself and Quinn, Ryan begins running again and drags Quinn and their father out with her. Quinn and Ryan's father had a health scare and he's been told that he is at risk for a stroke if he doesn't change his lifestyle.

Unable to stay away from Colton, Quinn returns to Shelter Cover after receiving texts from him asking for another good day. This time she meets his sister Shelby, who warns her to be careful with Colton. They hike to the top of a cliff, have lunch and discuss what they are feeling and what they know about each other. The more Quinn sees Colton, the more she wants to continue doing so as he gradually draws her out of depression over Trent's death. As the two become closer, Quinn struggles with telling Colton the truth about who she is. But when tragedy strikes, Quinn is forced to reveal to Colton the truth about her identity.


At first glance, the premise of Things We Know By Heart seems a bit creepy; a girl, unable to come to terms with her boyfriend's death and hoping that meeting the recipients of his organs might help her move on, trolls the internet until she manages to locate the recipient of her boyfriend's heart. She then begins a relationship with him that ultimately leads to them falling in love. Yet somehow this story works, possibly because Quinn is able to separate Trent and Colton in her own mind and not really focus on the fact that Trent's heart is beating in Colton's chest. From the very beginning Quinn does seem to see Colton as his own person. This turns the novel's focus into the romance and away from the tragedy of Trent's death and mirrors the path the main character travels.

Before meeting Colton Thomas, Quinn was a girl locked in grief, unable to move on. She often refers to herself as a widow, a somewhat melodramatic reference considering she and Trent were only girlfriend-boyfriend. Quinn believes that moving on in her life would somehow be dishonouring Trent's memory. The first time Colton visits her, Quinn is uncertain that she will see him again, knowing she should not. But she feels maybe that Trent would be fine with her doing this. "A breeze rolls softly over my skin, bringing with it the scent of the jasmine and a delicate rush of something else. Hope, maybe. Or possibility. I wait until  he turns onto the road and disappears to look down again at the sunflower. This time it looks different somehow -- less like a painful reminder and more like a sign, maybe that Trent would understand."

Gradually as Quinn and Colton continue to meet, Quinn begins to become involved in life again. She recognizes this when she states, "...I become the me who Colton knows." After Colton learns the truth about Quinn she tells him the effect he had on her. "I'm so sorry, for all of this, for everything. I just wanted to see who you were. I wasn't even going to talk to you. But then you walked in, and everything changed. And when you showed up at my door with that flower, and took me out on the water, and in the cave, and...every day, you showed me so much..."
Quinn's narrative is punctuated by the conflict that consumes her over having breached confidentiality rules regarding organ recipients and donors. When she first meets Colton and ends up at the local hospital for stitches she questions her motives in seeking him out.
"A tiny, uncomfortable question, one I'm almost scared to ask myself, tugs at the edge of my thoughts. What if I haven't been completely honest with myself about why I wanted to find him? I justified trying to find him with the idea that I needed to in order to move on. To find closure, say good-bye, all those things. But what if all I've really been trying to find is a way to hold on to a part of Trent? This piece I've given more meaning to than the rest, because maybe a tiny part of me feels like some essential part of him might still be there,  in his heart."
When she returns to Shelter Cove to bring Colton brownies she states, "Right now I still have a choice. If I keep driving, I haven't really done anything wrong as far as Colton and Trent go. But then. If I do that --if I keep driving -- I may not get another chance to know more about him."

The second day Quinn seeks out Colton causes her to experience more guilt when she admits, "I do know what I'm doing. I'm using my half-truth about the kayak lesson, and Colton's texts, as reasons to be back here. But they're more like excuses -- to forget my own rules, to ignore the tug of my conscience."

As their relationship develops, Quinn's guilt only increases to the point that she eventually confides in her sister. Ryan tells her that she needs to be honest with Colton about who she is and why she came to Shelter Cove. Ryan tells Quinn that if she wants her relationship with Colton to be a real one then she needs to tell him the truth but she also has to let go of Trent. Later on when Colton is deeply upset after he learns the truth and abandons the relationship Ryan tells her, "He deserves to know everything -- not just what he thinks he knows...That it started out being about Trent, but somewhere along the line that changed. That you fell in love with him..."

Where Kirby excels is at creating realistic characters whose struggles are believable. Readers get a bit of a glimpse inside the life of a young person who has received an organ donation. Colton has medications to take and his time with Quinn causes him to slack off his regimen and to go into organ rejection. His sister Shelby warns him to be careful about taking his medication because he has a responsibility to take care of this gift given at so high a price. Colton himself knows the cost of the heart he has received which is why he found it so difficult to reply to Quinn's letter.

My only complaint about this novel is that Quinn and Colton's relationship eventually turns sexual. This is the second young adult novel I have recently read where the main character, who is experiencing a serious amount of stress in her life, sleeps with a guy after knowing him only a short time. While I realize teens do have sex, many of them do not and I wish more novels would respect this fact.

Overall though Things We Know By Heart is a lovely novel about a girl, completely undone, who finds herself again, with the boy she least expected.

Book Details:

Things We Know By Heart by Jessi Kirby
New York: HarperTeen, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers    2015
291 pp.

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