It has been said, quite possibly once too often, that all good things must come to an end.
But what if, wonders the titular protagonist in The Heart of Henry Quantum, if they were never all that good to begin with?
Of course Henry has always told himself that he loves his wife Margaret and she loves him, and thus has it always been so; but as the events of December 23rd unfold, it becomes patently obvious to both he and his wife that all the suppositions they have made about the state of their relationship are little more than tissue paper covering a long-festering wound.
Admitting that to yourself is difficult and it takes deep-thinking Henry almost an entire day of soulless client meetings at the advertising firm in San Francisco where he is an account manager – a job he only took, he realises, he convince ambitious Margaret that he was a grown-up taking life seriously – to gather the courage to admit to the fact that his life has been founded on a series of well-intentioned, seamlessly-spun lies.
“Why had he waited so long to buy her a gift? he wondered. He could remember tons of Christmases–the excitement of planning and shopping, the thrill behind every bow and piece of tape on the wrapping, the joy of watching it all being torn apart–and then, inevitably, the muted, ‘Oh. Okay. Nice. Thank you.’ And the gift, so lovingly chosen, never to be seen again. Had it always been that way? he tried to remember.” (P. 34-35)
Pepper Harding uses a four act division in the book – Henry begins and ends the books while we also hear from Margaret, and Henry’s onetime girlfriend Daisy with whom he had an affair some years previously – all of which play over a single day during which every character makes radical reassessments of the state and trajectory of their lives.
For such portentous decisions however, The Heart of Henry Quantum unfolds in what feels like real time with the epiphanies falling inbetween getting lunch, buying Christmas gifts and picking kids up from school.
It’s not exactly road to Damascus material but then it’s never intended to be, I suspect.
Rather, Harding, the pen name we are told of an author who is well-known for writing in an altogether different genre, brilliantly couches what are to anyone’s eyes, fairly significant events such as the potential dissolution of a marriage that was cobbled together more out of inertia and convenience than any kind of passionate love affair, into the mundanity of an average day.
Albeit one that is loaded with the stress, emotional pressure and expectations of Christmas, which even for those of us who love the most wonderful time of the year, are worn around the tinseled neck of the festive seeason like gaudily-painted albatrosses.
It is without a doubt the time of the year when your mind is concentrated on the state of your life, by sheer dint of the fact that so many things come into play in one very intense period.
You are, simply by virtue of picking out gifts, indirectly assessing the state of your relationships with a whole lot of people in your life, rushing to get everything tied up before the usual end of year break which forces you to confront many things that might otherwise rush right by you, and you are usually physically and emotionally tired from a busy year, which is precisely the time when defensive mechanisms come down.
There’s a lot going on already so when Henry bumps into Daisy in downtown San Francisco and they share a lunch, one interrupted and spoiled by Henry’s guilt-drive admission that he still loves Margaret – but does he? Ah, there’s the rub -it’s the catalyst for the kind of soul-searching that is more common at Christmas than many people might suppose.
While Henry and Margaret do verge on the unlikable at times, you can’t help but be sympathetic to their plight – both are clinging, for reasons they don’t fully understand, to a marriage that has long since passed its use-by date, and neither knows if they want to bail out or not.
“Perhaps she hadn’t always felt this way, and in truth, her cynicism made her cringe a little. Partly because it wasn’t attractive, but also because she knew it wasn’t entirely healthy. And indeed, there was a time when the holidays thrilled her … They still had a tree, of course. Well, a little one. A silver one. Impossible to say what it was made of. Sat on the lowboy in the entry hall. Came with the ornaments already on it. Naturally Henry complained about it when she first bought it home, but he complained about everything. He couldn’t abide change. But she knew he’d get over it because he got over everything.” (P. 115)
By the end of this highly-readable and emotionally-authentic book, they will have gained some profound insights and made the kinds of decisions they should have made many years before, but Harding never asks you to judge, allowing each character to simply tell their story and connect the dots as they go along.
Some may say it’s unrealistic to say that one day would play such a pivotal role in three peoples’ lives but that’s hardly an outrageous idea at all; entire civilisations and countries have been changed irrevocably during less time and the book makes a solid case for how lives could be altered in much the same way.
The Heart of Henry Quantum is a call not necessarily for people to end marriages for the hell of it but rather a series of grounded carpe diem moments that say, in their own understated way, that life is short and you owe it to yourself to build a life that matters rather than continuing to live the one you long fell into and no longer recognise or wish to inhabit any longer.