Saturday, September 03, 2022

Fiction Review: Hearts in Atlantis

When my dad died seven years ago, my husband and I inherited his Stephen King and Dean Koontz collection. We all shared a love of reading, and these were two of his favorite authors. Most of the books are beautiful hardcovers, and the collection means a lot to both of us. For Big Book Summer Challenge each year, I often include a book from these shelves, to remember my dad and also because both authors write excellent books. My pick this summer was Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King, a unique work of fiction that my husband read last summer and said might be his favorite King novel ever (that's saying something!). This riveting, powerful piece of realistic fiction (no, not horror) includes multiple stories that are interconnected, from 1960 through 1990.

The book includes two novellas and three short stories, with clever connections between them. First up is a coming-of-age novella, Low Men in Yellow Coats, that is focused on 11-year-old Bobby in a small town in Connecticut in 1960. In many ways, Bobby is experiencing a classic summer for a kid at that time, hanging out with his two best friends, playing baseball, and going to the park and beach. But Bobby also has some very adult concerns that are black clouds over his summer. He can tell that something is upsetting his mother (and that it must be a very bad something), but he doesn't know what it is. He and his best friends, Sully and Carol, are being picked on by older bullies, and by the end of the summer, their bullying escalates to real violence. The other unusual thing about this summer for Bobby is their new 3rd-floor boarder, an older man named Ted. The two of them become friends, and Ted helps Bobby to choose some outstanding books after Bobby gets an adult library card, setting Bobby up with a lifelong love of literature as the two of them discuss books that summer, including Lord of the Flies

In the second novella, Hearts in Atlantis, set in 1966, Bobby's friend Carol is attending college in Maine, though she's not the main character of that story. Pete is a freshman at the same college and has gotten caught up in his dorm floor's obsession with the card game Hearts. Even as one boy after another either fails out or leaves the dorm, Pete is still under the spell of the game and in danger of failing also. Next comes a short story, Blind Willie, set in 1983, about a Vietnam vet who grew up in Bobby's hometown and appeared in that first novella. This vet now lives a secret double-life as an adult, as he has devoted his entire life to penance for something that happened when he was a child. The next short story, Why We're in Vietnam, is set in 1999 and focuses on another Vietnam vet, who served with the guy in the previous story. This vet happens to be Bobby's childhood buddy, Sully. He attends the funeral of a fellow vet from his unit and talks to another guy who was there, and during the funeral and all his way home to Connecticut, Sully is remembering what happened back then. Finally, Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling also takes place in 1999, as the narrative finally returns to Bobby and his friend, Carol, bringing the story full-circle.

These brief descriptions of each story and their connections don't begin to do justice to this original, clever work of fiction. King's writing is, as always, absolutely astounding, and I was so riveted by this book that I read it in record time, in spite of its size. Every story is outstanding on its own, and the way they all hang together is ingenious. King is especially brilliant when he writes from the perspective of a child (11-year-old Bobby), as we've seen in IT and the short story, The Body (adapted into the movie Stand By Me). Here, Bobby and Ted are discussing Lord of the Flies, Bobby's first-ever grown-up book:

"'Lord of the Flies wasn't much like the Hardy Boys, was it?'

Bobby had a momentary image, very clear, of Frank and Joe Hardy running through the jungle with homemade spears, chanting that they'd kill the pig and stick their spears up her arse. He burst out laughing, and as Ted joined him he knew that he was done with the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. Lord of the Flies had finished them off. He was very glad he had an adult library card."

In fact, I was thoroughly engrossed in every one of these five very different poignant stories. There is some suspense here, especially in the first story, though these are, for the most part, real-life stories, not horror (other than some real-life horrors like assault, bullying, and war). There is a small thread of fantasy in both the first and last stories (in the first one, King briefly mentions some things from his The Dark Tower series, which I'm told is something he inserts into almost every book!), but the focus throughout this book is on real people, real situations, and real feelings. The characters are fully fleshed out and all of the stories are emotionally complex and thought-provoking. I have to agree with my husband that Hearts in Atlantis is one of the best King books I've ever read. I only wish I could talk to my dad about it! Inside my dad's copy of the book, he wrote on the title page that he re-read it on 11/2010, and this is a book I can definitely see myself re-reading at some point.

522 pages, Scribner

Simon & Schuster Audio 

And I heard that there's a movie adaptation of Hearts in Atlantis, starring Anthony Hopkins, so I'd like to see that.

This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:


Mount TBR Challenge

Big Book Summer Challenge


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Listen to a sample of the audiobook here, narrated by William Hurt, and/or download it from Audible. The sample is from the first novella, featuring 11-year-old Bobby's perspective.


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



Or you can order Hearts in Atlantis from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.

1 comment:

  1. I love that your summer reading challenge lets you think about your dad!