As a teenager growing up in the Midwest, Dale Sampson invisible to everyone except a group of girls at school who suddenly decide to toy with him. In an unlikely turn of events, Mack, the school’s star athlete, intervenes, and the two become best friends. That’s how it goes all the way into high school: Mack is the star whom all the girls want, and Dale is his antisocial sidekick. Save for a few bouts of brutal physical bullying in high school, Dale mostly remains in Mack’s shadow.
Dale faces two tragedies in high school. One is unpreventable: his mother, the only family he lives with, becomes seriously ill. The second tragedy is a perfect storm of terrible and violent things that finally all come together in one explosive event. It changes Mack’s future and leaves Dale relentlessly pondering what-ifs for years to come. A weird, superhero-ish discovery also comes out of this event: Dale finds out that he can regenerate limbs.
It is this latter turn of events that takes the book from standard coming-of-age fare into a surreally macabre piece of speculative fiction. Years after that horrible night, Dale remains haunted and suicidal. While Mack has gone off to college and seemingly has a new girl every night, Dale has yet to have any type of romantic relationship. One day, he runs into a girl from his past; it’s immediately apparent to him that she’s in an abusive relationship. He becomes obsessed with saving her, and it’s a good thing that his limbs and organs regenerate, because the woman’s husband doesn’t take too kindly to Dale’s intrusion into their lives.
There are other twists in the book that I’ll refrain from talking about. Taken separately, I probably would not have liked all of the book’s elements; with the limb and organ regeneration (more specifically, the places Dale goes with it), the book gets pretty out there sometimes. But all these elements put together? It’s fantastic. There’s a deeply human element to the novel; in spite of all the trauma he’s faced, Dale remains grimly optimistic that at least something good will come out of everything he’s gone through. The way the book unfolded turned out to be one of my favorite twists in a long while. I absolutely loved it.
The Heart Does Not Grow Back by Fred Venturini was released on November 4, 2014 by Picador. The book is on tour right now, so be sure to check out what other bloggers are saying!