Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin is a contemporary fiction novel about a stay-at-home mom, Tessa Russo, and her sudden connection to single mother, Valerie Anderson. Tessa and her pediatric plastic surgeon husband, Nick, are having an anniversary date at one of their favorite restaurants. Things are pleasant, the restaurant is nice and the Russos are waiting for their food to be served while they drink wine and chat. Nick and Tessa live in a nice neighborhood in Boston – they live in a Tudor style home with a backyard and they have two children – Ruby, the oldest, and Frank. As a surgeon, Nick works long, odd hours sometimes and has to be on-call at other times, so over the years Tess has learned to graciously accept it as something she has to deal with as her role as a surgeon’s wife. Nick is on-call the night of their anniversary, but appears to be enjoying the evening with his wife. While they’re waiting for their food, Nick’s pager goes off so he excuses himself to go call the hospital to see what’s going on. 

When Nick returns to the table, Tess asks about it and Nick explains that he has a young burn victim coming into the Emergency Department so he has to go in to assess the injuries and assess what he needs to do in order to fix the burned skin. He tells her that he’s already informed their waiter that they’ll have to take their food to go, that he’ll have to drop her (and dinner) off at home and apologizes for their anniversary dinner getting interrupted and for ruining their anniversary dinner plans to which Tess is non-argumentative, accepts his apologies and is very understanding. Nick drops her off, then heads to the hospital to see the patient; when he gets there he finds out that his patient is a six-year-old boy named Charlie. Charlie was at a sleepover at his friend, Grayson’s, house and accidentally fell into their firepit. Poor Charlie suffers third-degree burns on his right hand and the left side of his face.

Dr. Russo introduces himself to Valerie, Charlie’s mother, and let’s her know that he’s “one of the leading pediatric plastic surgeons in the world” immediately putting Valerie at ease and giving her confidence in his advice, skills, treatment plan recommendations, and ability to help fix her son. Over time, Dr. Nick and Charlie develop a close doctor-patient relationship as Valerie notices that Nick does a good job of keeping Charlie’s spirits up. Charlie is a respectful and fairly well-behaved six-year-old – he’s thoughtful, smart, generally happy, easygoing, understanding and kind; it’s no surprise that Nick grows to love Charlie over the course of his recovery and treatment in the hospital. Nick sympathizes with Charlie because he doesn’t know his father – a noble sentiment for Nick to have, but his actions in response to that feeling look less noble to an observer. Tess and Nick don’t have a terrible marriage, but it’s lacking the emotional and physical intimacy that each spouse needs to feel happy and that nurtures a romantic relationship and especially a marriage.

The story is told from the point-of-view of Tess and Valerie; Tess finds out more about Charlie’s condition from her friend/acquaintance, April, because she’s good friends with Romy. Tess mostly finds out about things related to this particular patient from April and others in the neighborhood – Nick is pretty tight-lipped about it and understandably so because he has to. However, over time Nick develops feelings for (or maybe he just thinks that he does) Valerie. She’s not much like Tess at all – she’s quiet, keeps to herself (she doesn’t have many friends and is very private, something she and Nick have in common), she’s devoted to her son, a single mother and a graduate of law school (attended the same university Nick did). She and Nick get along well, slowly developing, what appears to be, a harmless friendship, but let’s be real and clear – if you can’t introduce this harmless female friend to your wife, then there’s NOTHING harmless about the friendship you have. Likewise, if a woman can’t introduce her harmless male friend to her husband, then there that friendship is NOT harmless. 

So, Dr. Nick allows (yea, allows!) himself to cultivate this friendship and morph it into something more. He gives her his personal cell phone number (not the hospital pager number girl!), tells her she can call him anytime with questions (mmhmmm – not buying that), and even takes her to dinner after finishing up his work at the hospital one night (I want to take this moment to point out that he’s able to sit longer with Valerie during dinner than he was able to sit with Tess during their anniversary dinner). Tess notices Nick’s emotional and somewhat physical withdrawal from her and even their family, she reads a text message he sent to Valerie telling her he “misses her too” (although Tess doesn’t recognize the number at the time); she begins to wonder if Nick would cheat on her. One day while talking to her best friend, Cate, on the phone, Tess confesses her worries, concerns and growing suspicion that Nick is either on the verge of an affair or has already had an affair. Cate disagrees with her then invites and convinces her to come to New York for a girls’ spa weekend! Tess agrees, but also wonders if Nick would use the weekend as an opportunity to spend time with her. 

After Charlie’s discharged from the hospital to continue outpatient treatment, Nick begins spending time with Valerie and Charlie at her home – sometimes when they get together all of three of them will do something together, for example, one time Nick was over there, he cooked dinner for the three of them and then there are other times, many other times, when it’s just Valerie and Nick together because Charlie’s already in bed. In the beginning these visits between Nick and Valerie are them sitting on the couch together holding hands or laying on opposite ends of the couch with their feet touching in the middle – it gradually progresses from there culminating in Nick’s scheme to spend more time with Valerie (and Charlie) during the weekend Tess is in New York, when he finds out about her trip closer to her departure date. Nick asks Tess if the babysitter is still scheduled to come or if she has been cancelled for the weekend – Tess assures him that the babysitter had not been cancelled and that she would be at their home by about 8, but points out that he can inform her that he will be with the children, that she can head home, that they’re sorry they didn’t provide her with advance notice of the change and to pay her for her transportation to and from their house. She decides to counter his question with one of her own: why?, to which Nick answers that he may want to go out to grab a beer. Tess, undeterred, continues her line of questioning (she used to be a teacher) asking him with whom he’d be going out to grab a beer with and Tess can tell, see that the question actually throws Nick off a bit because he doesn’t have an answer readily available for it therefore taking some time to think about an answer. She mentally notes that he doesn’t really have many friends in the area (not even at the hospital where he’s admired and adored) and that he doesn’t really have or take the time to cultivate or maintain relationships – namely friendships – which is why Tess finds his behavior and answers to her questions odd. Nick lies and says he may go out with some coworkers. 

Tess does go to New York and Nick does go over to Valerie’s as Tess suspected and Nick planned. During her trip, Tess and Cate make it a point to go out and one night, Tess asks her brother, Dex, and sister-in-law, Rachel out too; by the time Dex and Rachel arrive, Tess has had a few drinks and is more open to discussing her concerns about Nick cheating on her and does that with Dex and Rachel. They all find it hard to believe Nick would cheat on her, but they also encourage her to get some answers to remove her worries – during this conversation Tess receives an email or text message from her friendquaintance, April, with a headline (or subject) that reads “URGENT”. Next thing you know, the gathering at the bar becomes a strategic planning meeting about what Tess should do. They all agree that she should call April back sooner rather than later – that waiting to call her back is worse than just getting it over with. 

Tess calls April the following morning at the insistence of Cate (good ‘ol Cate) – April tells Tess that Romy was at the private school one afternoon and happened to see Nick there with Valerie sharing a cozy, awkward-looking embrace confirming every suspicion Tess had. After she hangs up with April, she decides to cut her trip short and head home. Back in Boston, she’s been having trouble getting Nick on the phone since she landed in New York, but she catches him on the phone this morning. He’s utterly shocked to find out she’s not in New York anymore and is on her way home. The tension between Nick and Tess upon her return is a giant dinosaur in the room and the author does a great job of capturing how very young children can be oblivious to the mood of their parents and I was very interested to see what Tess would do and how things would turn out. 

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up this book – I just thought the story sounded interesting and I wanted to know what (or who) would end up connecting Tessa Russo to Valerie Anderson; my guess was that the women were connected via a shared husband who was living two different lives deceiving the two women, but instead it was a cheating husband (like I said, I was close). Now, let’s start by saying the author did a fabulous job writing this story, weaving the story together through Tessa’s and Valerie’s eyes, and develops engaging, vivid characters, but reading this book, watching Nick slide closer and closer to an affair is like reading/watching a train wreck happen… in slow motion. There are times when you’re not sure you want to keep reading because you can clearly see, plain as day, what’s going to happen, but at the same time, there are times when you simply won’t be able to stop yourself from reading because it’s just so bad you have to find out what happens next. 

I liked the story and would recommend it to people who enjoy reading contemporary fiction novels or are huge fans of Emily Giffin. My absolute favorite character is Tess – I love her personality and the graceful way she handles the many disappointments and other demands of her husband’s profession. I love how much she still adores Nick even after all of the years they’ve been married she still sees him like she did the first time they met on the subway. I liked Nick in the beginning, but once he started slipping I didn’t really like him as much anymore. Nick is wrong and I have to admit that it made me a little angry to read that Nick could take time out of his busy day and work schedule to cook for Charlie and Valerie (a totally nice gesture if he had cooked it at home, maybe even with his wife, then packaged it up and delivered it to Valerie with his wife, Tessa), but couldn’t really seem to find the time to cook for Tessa and his children. That he couldn’t seem to find the time to make it home by dinner. 

If Valerie wasn’t a homewrecker then I’d probably like her character, but since she decides to pursue a relationship with her son’s married doctor forgetting any and all morals and ethics, I’m not a huge fan. My opinion of Valerie changed when she admits numerous times that she knows what she and Nick are encroaching on is wrong, but doesn’t bother to stop herself at any point in which this realization is made or thought surfaces in her mind. I mean she openly admits to herself that what they’re selfishly embarking on is wrong, but because she really wants it, she’s going to do something wrong. Everyone has to ask themself if doing or having something they want is worth doing the wrong thing; at least Valerie had the minimal amount of sense necessary to feel ashamed as she should because as someone who graduated from law school, this is not one of her better moments in life. She should have ended things with Nick sooner, encouraged him to spend time with his family and should have always followed the other golden rule of decline, decline, decline – always decline the invitation of a married man to go anywhere and/or do anything alone. Period. Back to Nick for a second; another thing that made me mad and caused my opinion of him to change was the realization that he could have and should have been putting all of that time, energy, and love into his own marriage and family. He should have focused his efforts and additional brain power into trying to fix his marriage and keep his family together. Just mind boggling to think he can find the time and energy to put into a new relationship, but can’t do the same for the relationship he’s been in the longest and that matters the most. 

It’s a good book that captures a situation that a lot of spouses find themselves in and the I think it’s great that the author presents this situation from the point-of-view of the wife and the point-of-view of the mistress – the book shows how easily a single woman can become the other woman in a relationship and how easily an unsatisfied spouse can be tempted to cheat or have an affair (are they the same, or is there some super minuscule difference in their definitions that makes one worse than the other?) despite knowing it’s not right and sometimes, they may not even have feelings for the other woman, but a simple physical attraction. Both scenarios are bad and honestly, if you’re having problems in your marriage, are unhappy or unsatisfied, your first step is to communicate your concerns and feelings to your spouse so the both of you can figure out if your challenges are something you can and are willing to work through or if you’d rather part ways and move on. However, it is never a good idea to pursue and participate in an affair – just be honest with your spouse about your feelings so you can avoid the catastrophe that will be your life if you cheat. For those who, like me, want to read the book before any exchange of money is made, then I recommend checking your local library or libraries for an available copy; and it doesn’t hurt to check a used bookstore if there is one near you or one you’re willing and able to travel to. Lastly, if you don’t mind spending the money, or simply want a copy now you can read or just know you’re going to love the book, you can always buy a new paperback copy at Barnes and Noble for $17.99 ($16.49 for Members).

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