Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart by Jenn Bennet

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is a contemporary romance that explores the themes of identity and family. Beatrix Adams lives with her mother who is an emergency room nurse at Parnassus Medical Center and her older brother, Heath. Beatrix, who goes by the name of Bex, is fascinated by anatomy and aspires to be a medical illustrator. She's hoping to be allowed to draw the cadavers in the anatomy lab at the hospital so that she can enter a student drawing competition in July that offers a scholarship prize. But she first needs permission from the director of the lab, Dr. Sheridan. When Dr. Sheridan doesn't show for their meeting Bex finds herself taking the Owl transit bus to her home
in the Inner Sunset district, a few blocks from Golden Gate Park. While waiting for the bus she meets an attractive boy all dressed in black. Teasing him that he looks like a jewel thief, he tells her that Jack the Burglar is a good name, leading Bex to believe that his first name is Jack.

When the bus jerks to a stop and a can of gold metallic spray pain rolls out, Bex realizes she knows who he is. Someone has been spraying gold graffiti all over San Francisco since May. The graffiti, words like BEGIN, FLY, BELONG, JUMP, TRUST, have appeared as single words in gold paint on bridges and buildings. The gold paint tin leads Bex to believe that Jack is the person doing the graffiti. The police are convinced that the graffiti vandal is associated with a group called Discord who opposes the mayor.

Both Bex and Heath just make it home before their mother unexpectedly returns home that night. Bex hears her mother argue on the phone with an unknown person. The next morning Bex goes to her job as a checkout girl at Alto Market, an upscale gourmet market. Her manager, Ms. Lopez, tells her that the gold graffiti vandal has struck again overnight, painting the Ninth Avenue Golden Gate Park with the word BLOOM.

Determined to find out more about Jack, Bex talks to Panhandler Will, a homeless man who hangs around the Parnassus. The only thing he tells her is that Jack comes to visit a lady friend in the hospital. A few days later Bex meets Jack who has also been attempting to find out who she is. Bex only tells Jack that she's one of the contributing artists on an anatomy illustration blog called Body-O-Rama and challenges him to identify her. Meanwhile, Bex has her meeting with Dr. Sheridan who refuses her permission to draw cadavers because the facility is for the university students.

On her birthday, Bex along with her mom and Heath go to the Legion of Honor, an art museum showing an exhibition entitled Flesh and Bone and featuring Max Brodel's heart diagram. During her visit the area beneath the heart diagram is vandalized with the word, CELEBRATE in gold. Bex suspects that Jack saw her birthday post on the blog and wrote this for her. Bex takes a picture and posts it online with the comment "Golden Apple vandal wishing me a happy birthday."  This garners her a visit from the police inquiring as to whether she knows the vandal but Bex insists she does not know the identity of the vandal.

When Jack shows up at Alto Market, Bex angrily tells him about the police visit. She learns his name is Jackson Vincent and also tells him about not being able to draw in the anatomy lab and how she needs to do this so she can enter something spectacular in the art show to gain a scholarship. Jack promises to get her into the anatomy lab. The very next day Bex is contacted by Dr. Sheridan's assistant who tells her she can draw under the supervision of a student. Bex knows that Jack arranged this for her and wonders just who he really is. Meanwhile Bex receives a beautifully carved articulated artist's mannequin from a studio in Berkeley, California. Heath reveals to Bex that their father recently moved to Berkeley leading her to suspect it is from their father. Her mother has told them that their father abandoned them for a stripper and has refused to pay child support. Two years ago, Beatrix changed her last name from her father's Van Asch to Adams.

When Bex goes to draw at the anatomy lab, she is deeply upset at drawing a female cadaver nicknamed "Minnie". She rushes out of the lab and is sick to her stomach on the street where she meets Jack who comforts her. He takes her to an unusual tea lounge to recover and Bex finds herself increasingly attracted to him. At the tea lounge they have an unexpected encounter with Sierra, an old friend of Jack's who invites them to a party. Jack declines and somewhat explains his relationship with Sierra.  Bex meets Jack a few days later and finds him disheveled and confused. He's picked up by his father, leaving Bex puzzled over what's happening, especially since he seems in great distress. His texts only deepen the mystery further. The more Bex is in contact with Jack, the more questions she has about who he is and what is happening in his life.


There's plenty to dislike about the beginning of this novel and some of the messages it sends teens. In an attempt to seem cool and perhaps relevant to teens, The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is filled with a plethora of unlikeable characters who think nothing of behaving badly. Of course bad characters make novels interesting, but in this case, the first part of the novel gets bogged down in raunchy characters who promote the worst behaviours of modern culture. One of the main characters, Jackson Vincent, is a graffiti artist who is defacing various areas around San Francisco. He's acting out the frustrations he has over his ever-absent, cold father who is Mayor of San Francisco and the sadness he feels about his twin sister's mental illness. He is a mysterious character who draws the reader in because at first glance he appears to be the quintessential bad boy. Bex, is a sexually active teenager/wannabe medical illustrator whose main focus seems to be on having sex with Jack. In fact her narrative is filled with sexual innuendo and she's constantly fantasizing about Jack's body and sex, making the mystery of Jack's true identity and the secrets he's keeping almost insignificant.

Bex has a mother who thinks nothing of stealing EIGHT boxes of condoms from the hospital for her daughter for when she has sex with Jack. Readers are told Bex's mother does this on a regular basis for her gay son Heath who himself has crashed and burned several times both academically and in his relationships. Bex's parents divorced after her father abandoned the family several years ago. Bex's mother has told her children that their father left them for a stripper and that he refused to pay child support. This meant that they lost their home, that Bex had to leave her school and unless she is able to obtain a significant scholarship will be unable to attend university to study art. When Bex meets her father in Berkley she learns that all of this is not true. Her mother has also prevented her ex-husband from having any contact with his children, despite his desire to see them and his right to do so as a their father. Although Bex's mother is portrayed as a hardworking, caring mother, her actions towards their father and denying her children the chance to have a meaningful relationship with their dad make her a truly reprehensible character. Bex however, doesn't seem to mind much as she quickly forgives her mother's lies.

The large amount of sexual innuendo and Bex's constant desire to become sexually involved with Jack draw the focus away from aspects of the story that are much more interesting. Fortunately, Bennet does get her story on track in the latter half of the novel. Jack and his life have been a mystery to Bex up until now and there's a good reason why. Jack takes Bex to visit his "lady friend" who turns out to be his twin sister, Jillian, a schizophrenic. It is hauntingly tender scene. Jack is completely undone by his sister's descent into full blown schizophrenia. He treats her with respect, care and concern, resulting in Bex seeing Jack's true character and diverting her attention (momentarily) away from their mutual physical attraction. After their visit Jack explains to Bex how his beautiful sister changed from "being homecoming princess to someone who stopped wearing makeup and dressed like a slob."  to someone so paranoid she stabbed her own mother.  Jack reveals how this has affected him and how he mourns for the sister who "won't have a normal life. She won't ever go to school again, and she won't get married or have kids."  He also reveals that part of his pain arises from his parents determination to hide his sister's true condition, believing the stigma of a mental illness will negatively affect his father's political aspirations.

All of this has led Jack to question whether Bex would want to be involved with him. This does not prove to be a deterrent to Bex who proves herself to be open minded and brave. And it is through her that Jack's family changes how they deal with Jillian's mental illness. When her plans for the art show fall through, Bex decides to use her artistic ability to humanize Jillian's illness by drawing her portrait.

"Jillian's round face was painted in quick strokes. I'd copied her hair from old photos, dark and bobbed and swooping over her forehead. Her big eyes were open, and she was smiling shyly...Minnie's dissected arm and half-chest were superimposed over Jillian. But instead of looking alike the dead flesh I'd originally drawn, I'd painted it to look like the dissections were doors opening to reveal her muscles and organs -- like the back of a clock removed to show the cogs and wheels...
And in place of the usual anatomical diagram labels to identify the names of bones and muscles, I substituted words from Jillian's ramblings. Memories of her childhood cat. Her first boyfriend. Her favorite book...
Hundreds of words. They filled the space around her, connected by diagram lines and curling veins..."

Bex titled her work,  Hebe Immortalized" because, as the Mayor tells onlookers, "hebephrenia is another name for disorganized schizophrenia.  After the exhibition, Jack's father approaches Bex to purchase her painting. When she asks him why, he reveals that " made me realize I don't see my daughter as much as I should."  Ultimately it leads to the Mayor working to help obtain funds for "a new outreach program for homeless people with psychiatric needs..."  It would have been wonderful if Bennet could have had a rendering of Bex's painting. However, perhaps it's fitting she's left what it looks like to each reader's imagination.

One of the strengths of this novel is the journey Bex takes in determining how she's going to use her artistic abilities. At the beginning of the novel she's decided to be a medical illustrator. She's stopped using colour and only draws in black and white. Bex doesn't believe she's a creative person as she tells Jack, "And I'm not creative -- I mean, not in a cool way. I used to paint, but color overwhelms me now. Maybe my tastes have changed over the last couple of years -- I don't know. It's easier when I leave emotion out of it and just focus on line and shadow..." However, Bex quickly finds that she doesn't have the stomach for drawing from cadavers. When her mother questions why she's chose this route, Bex tells her she's being practical and hopes that her skills will one day save lives.  However, her mother tells her, "Art shouldn't be practical. It should be emotional and expressive. There are other ways to save people's lives than drawing teaching diagrams for med students. You could do something bigger. Something that makes people happy -- and that makes you happy." Eventually circumstances push Bex into considering another way to be creative, a way that melds her anatomical drawings with artistic flair. That change comes after meeting Jack's sister, Jillian, and offers Bex a chance to use her artistic abilities to speak for those who can't.

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart is a book best read by older teens due to the mature content.

Book Details:

The Anatomical Shape of A Heart by Jenn Bennet
New York: Feiwel and Friends Book     2015
294 pp.

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