only love can break your heart book coverReviewed by Neriza Billi

”We were coming of age in the late seventies, at the sweaty, nauseous, split-headed peak of the hangover between Watergate and ’Morning in America.’”

That pretty much establishes the background of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Set in the small provincial town of Spencerville, Virginia in the late seventies, it is all about Rocky, a seven-year-old boy who has always idolized his ’bad boy’ half-brother, Paul. In spite of the gap between their ages, Paul has never treated Rocky like a kid. He talked to him as one of his friends, taught him how to fight bullies in school, and unconsciously, instilled in him a sacred love for vinyl records.

A terrible decision forced Paul to leave town. Not hearing any news for years, Rocky’s family somehow accepted the possibility that he is dead. When the bust of the American Century happened, it not only brought economic problems to Rocky’s family, it also brought back Paul and secrets that they’d rather keep.

I started this book with the assumption that it was all about a typical American family. I was slightly intrigued when I recognized that it was a rite of passage story instead, but by that point, I couldn’t stop reading.

Everything is told from Rocky’s point of view, allowing the reader to directly witness how he has matured and grown into an adult. As a child, he sees everything in black or white, but as the narrative develops, the reader can see how he is starting to battle with his own judgments and emotions. All these were handled with light-handedness and sensitivity–an admirable feat for the author.

Almost every character has left their mark on Rocky; be it good or bad. The title Only Love Can Break Your Heart was an apparent influence on him, partly by his brother, and it was a definite product of the era and society of Rocky’s childhood days. This, I felt, was a delightfully witty and original revelation.

To top it all, what makes this book really memorable is the flawless storytelling of the author. I could have continued reading two hundred pages more and I wouldn’t have noticed.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Neriza Billi works a regular 9-to-5 job in Stockholm where she resides with her husband. In addition to reading, she enjoys travelling and curling up with a glass of good wine.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Algonquin Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.