A Change of Heart (Review Page)
Author: Josephine Burg
“Unlike anything I have ever read before,” Stephen King
The day Dr. Leonard told me her patient had died, I was over the moon. I am sure he was a stand-up guy and all, but him dying really benefitted my patient, Nappy Chester. Nappy was short for Napoleon, as his parents are certifiably insane.
When Fenton Kirby dies, his perfectly healthy heart is given to Murray’s long-time patient, Nappy Chester. Six months later, Murray is being sued for malpractice by Nappy’s wide, Olga. What went wrong?
“A Charge of Heart,” Josephine Burg’s debut novel, has gathered both critical acclaim and mainstream success in its crossover of medicine and law. The New York Diaries has deemed it “the best book as a subject of small talk” and The Toronto Peep has called it “a masterclass in every single sub-genre.”
With clinical precision, Burg makes her reader into the unheard witness of this intriguing tale both medical and legal, of which many an antihero character may create literary history.
– Addie D. ✓
(This review contains spoilers)
“Thank you so much…. Sorry, what is your first name?” the patient asked.
“Doctor,” I answered.
A Change of Heart, p. 234.
Having had some time now to digest this 500-page monstrosity, I am still no closer to deciding was the fuck that was.
Murray—we are never given a first name, apart from that dry, cryptic answer—is a cynical, socially unskilled doctor, in the tradition of Gregory House. That itself is nothing new, yet we experience the very first plot-twist of the book in the second chapter, when we find out that Dr. Murray is a woman. That works due to the narration style of the novel, varying between the points of view of the characters; one would not have noticed that Dr. Murray was a woman because she would not have used third-person pronouns to describe herself. However, it is quite a wake-up call for the reader, who is called out on their assumptions: Did you think Murray was a woman simply due to how blunt she is? Or is that perhaps because one is conditioned to think of male narrators as the default protagonists? That is a question right at the start of the book, and that is how it lets you know things are not what they seem here, ever. “A Change of Heart” will sneak up on you.
There seems to be a wide range of opinions regarding this novel: For every reader who sees it as an absurdist masterpiece, there will be one for whom this is just a book trying to answer too many questions all at once. There will be as many positive reactions to Dr. Murray’s characterization as there will be complaints about the portrayal of a female doctor having such questionable attitudes. I am still on the fence about this. While I do not think Burg intended for us to see the characters’ behaviours as exemplary, I am not sure how they are supposed to be interpreted. By disregarding them, it is almost like the novel lets her off the hook despite the shadiness of ninety percent of her actions.
For a book so concerned with establishing moral boundaries, it is remarkably exempt from moral behaviour. The most unquestionably moral character, Nappy Chester, still commits adultery multiple times—and, though he clearly feels guilty, the narrative keeps justifying it over and over. That is exactly because—and here lies the central plot point of the novel—he has been given Fenton Kirby’s heart, and cannot possibly avoid falling in love with Fenton’s grieving wife, Judy.
I believe that, apart from the unclear ideological stance taken by the narrative and Murray’s unlikability, this is what has most thrown people off about this book. It has been met with many a dismissive snark from reviewers, most of whom refuse to read it based on this premise. At the same time, those who have picked this book up only for the romance will be unsatisfied with the two thirds of it that sound like marginally more absurd medical and legal procedurals.
In addition, some people have been reading this under the impression that it is a fantasy/sci-fi novel, when the whole thing isn’t necessarily fantastical. Yes, Olga’s lawsuit is based on Nappy having divorced her after getting a heart transplant and falling in love with the donor’s wife. Yes, at one point Judy gets an eye exam by a “street-doctor” as she waits in line at the bank. Yes, there is one lab mouse thought to be immune to all diseases, for whom doctors erect a shrine and take small offerings. But those things in themselves don’t mean anything. Just because there is a speculative element does not make the novel fantasy or sci-fi.
Which brings us back to the fact that this is attempting to be a lot of things at once. Whether it succeeds or not is up to you to decide. It tackles many different subjects in many ways, and answers none satisfactorily. One subject it dwells upon a lot, from the very first chapter, in fact, is the happiness generated directly from the misery of others. The scene in which Murray tells Nappy that he is getting a new heart is a bit heavy-handed, if not silly, but it brings the point home:
“Anyway,” I said, “you are getting a prime heart. The man to whom it belonged, Felton Kirby, was very healthy!”
“Yes, up until he was attacked by a giant squid at the City Aquarium. Oh, well. His downfall is your luck.”
“Could you not put it that way?” said Nappy.
“Like we are lucky he died?”
“But you are lucky he died! That’s literally the beauty of organ transplants!”
“Still, it’s not a motive for celebration…”
“Of course it is! If he hadn’t been killed by a giant squid, you would have been killed by your own lazy heart!”
“The Worst Book I Have Read This Decade” (one–and–a–half stars)
“I’m sorry, Olga,” I said, mostly because I did not know what else to say.
“It’s this heart of yours. It’s like it’s turned you into a different person altogether. It’s like he’s taking over your body, and you’re just the host.”
I let her think that. It made her feel better.
Move over, The Sacred Plight of a Killing by Elfrieda Pikins. You are now the second worst novel of the decade. You almost made it all the way though, only to be dethroned in the second semester of 2019. I almost feel sorry for you. But if there is one thing no one can accuse Pikins of, it is pretentiousness. She knows her writing sucks and will not apologize for it, which is more than can be said of Josephine Burg.
While the premise of “A Change of Heart” is over-the-top, a good writer could have made it work. The absurdist perspective that some have misinterpreted this book to show could have been interesting, yet Burg does not push for it enough to own up to it. The characters are always either seriously hinting at it or dismissing the sci-fi hypothesis altogether. Nappy in particular seems to blame everything on “Fenton” one second and laugh about the hypothesis the next.
As much as I would have liked to believe, like Murray, that the whole thing is a ploy that Nappy has invented for the benefit of Olga, the book does not provide enough evidence of that either. Queue a thousand people commenting, “That’s the point, you moron.” Well, if that’s the point, it’s a rather dull one. Maybe it could have made for an interesting short story. But no; instead, it wastes five hundred pages deciding what it wants to be.
In many ways, this book is the embodiment of Nappy’s identity crisis: Is it a schmaltzy romance about a widow and the man who received her husband’s heart? Is it some weird supernatural ghost sci-fi shit? Is it the tale of a doctor, whose textbook unlikability conquers the previously thought unreachable failure of making her look less human? Is it a character of study of a boring adulterer who thinks he’s special? Is it a courtroom drama? A serious procedural? The same story recycled each time for a new creative writing workshop on genre? A frustrated attempt at camp?
At one point in the novel, we are treated to pages of lab results, which most people could not understand; but this move was still praised for being so “experimental.” Well, let me use your character’s words against you, Ms. Burg: “Not all experiments are a success. Most of them, in fact, are manipulated, and, its results, cherry-picked.” That is five comas in a twelve-word sentence. Was Murray writing through hiccups?
Honestly, kindly fuck off.
PS: This novel includes a full-blown musical number to Mamma Mia’s version of ABBA’s Waterloo—despite its inability to reproduce sound. We are told to “read the lyrics and sing in our heads, or—if we are particularly lacking in auditory memory—look it up online and play it on repeat while we read this scene.” So, trigger warning for what the hell that is.
“The best love story since Wuthering Heights” (four stars)
“You’ve reminded me I’ve a heart to feed,” said Nappy, looking defeated. “I cannot let it starve anymore. It’s killing me. Much more than the one that was actually killing me, Judy. You are in everything I do. I don’t know why; maybe Olga’s right and it is Fenton. But I love you as myself, not as him. With all my messed up, sick heart as well as his.”
Damn. I was not expecting this to hit this hard. When a friend first recommended it to me, I was sceptical, mainly because it’s not a typical romance novel. It’s a “literary” novel, and the only literary novels I like are Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice (and, okay, maybe some parts of Jane Eyre). This one is not like those, but it’s good in a different way.
Nappy Chester (get it?) is a heart patient who undergoes a heart transplant and, after that, falls in love with his donor’s widow, Judy. We spend a great part of the book seeing them pine for each other. Once Nappy finally leaves his wife, there’s a big payoff, but the story is far from being over, since his ex (who is kind of abusive, if we’re being honest) decides to sue not him, or Judy, but his doctor, the unbearable Dr. Murray.
Now, this is where the book doesn’t work for me, and why I gave it four stars and not five. We spend a good chunk of the book reading Murray’s POV, which contributes nothing to the story, on top of her being a complete asshole. I guess that is the literary part? Does Josephine Burg thing that having a mean character who makes fun of everything is a requirement? It’s almost like she’s ashamed of writing romance so she adds someone to constantly mock any display of emotion and feeling—because this is a “serious” book? I wish serious books were more sincere. This one was close to a perfect score but couldn’t help but undermine the moments of real romance. But when it does romance, it is a fucking gem.
I suppose what is most interesting about the Murray character is that she is a typical villain, except that her part in the narrative is bringing Judy and Nappy together, and the villain is really Olga. That makes for an interesting change in the character dynamics. Ultimately, though, she was just too unlikable.
Anyway, can Judy and Nappy get their literary couple star now? Thanks.
“Awful people doing awful things for 500 pages straight” (two stars)
Why are people so inclined to reading and writing about terrible characters? Every single thing those characters do is reprehensible, even if they are saving someone’s life. Dr. Murray saves lives so she can “gather hubris and put it away in her lair” (yes, this is an actual quote from the book). Nappy spends the entire novel feeling guilty about his actions and then proceeding to act in the exact same way. Judy doesn’t seem to give a shit that she’s a homewrecker, and Olga is treated like a psychotic ex-wife who just won’t leave the protagonists alone, as if they hadn’t screwed her over.
The success of this novel really does say something alarming about our society. Even if we ignore the female archetypes Judy and Olga are based on, the supposedly positive representation of Dr. Murray sends the message that women can only be successful professionals if they are heartless. And, while Murray is the most informed and fully fleshed protagonist, her life still seems to revolve around this unremarkable dude who I am somehow supposed to feel sorry for? Because he’s cheating on his wife but feels guilty about it sometimes?
I am sick and tired of the romanticising of adultery and cheating in general. Though people’s general attitude towards it has been indifference, I’ve heard some say that is why they picked up the book in the first place. The reason I did not give “A Change of Heart” one star actually relates to this issue precisely; it’s this poignant moment of self-awareness in which it calls out its readers:
You know what I think? The more liberal society becomes about sex and love, the less romantic it gets. There’s no Romeo and Juliet if your family doesn’t have a mortal rival. Most people no longer give a shit who you sleep with. The only love story that remains is adultery. Or, like, one when person has died; or is about to die or something. People get really lovey-dovey when they’re terminally ill. It’s because suddenly there’s something in the way of them being with the other person, and maybe love can triumph over all and give their life meaning some bullshit.
A Change of Heart manages to tell the story both of adultery and a person dying. That is because Judy may or may not believe that her husband, Fenton, is still alive inside Nappy’s body. Nappy may or may not believe that as well. Olga definitely believes that, and Murray definitely does not. That’s pretty much the book for you. The citation is obviously a Murray chapter, by the way. It’s not that her cynicism is upsetting—it’s a welcome contrast to Nappy and Judy’s constant pining and melodrama, but it is still so predictable. If the couple wasn’t so over-the-top, this extreme balancing act could have worked better.
There is one other moment that could have been nice and feminist, but Murray’s cynicism pretty much managed to ruin it:
“That whole logical problem they tell you about the kid and the dad being in a car accident and them both being surgeons and the kid needing brain surgery and the brain surgeon saying ‘I cannot operate, this is my son’ and people being confused by it. It was always so obvious to me. I think that’s why I became a doctor, so that it would be obvious to other people”
Oh, shut the fuck up. What kind of buffoonery is this? I hate people who pretend everything they do is out of the pureness of their hearts as opposed to the lightness of their pockets. We all become doctors for the money, Lola. Let’s not be hypocrites, okay? That’s what the Hippocratic Oath is all about. Yeah, sometimes it’s nice to know you saved someone. You get that hubris. But no one likes touching squishy toxic waste for a living. We do it for the money, and that’s the most feminist thing I can think of.
I mean, really, Josephine? That’s a nice message for young women who might be reading your book. Doing things for the money is more empowering than actually helping people, women are either nice or successful, and cheating is okay if you’ve had a heart transplant and you do it with the dead guy’s wife.
“A Breath of Fresh Air” (five stars)
“Murray, this is his wife, Judy,” Lena said.
“How do you spell it?”
“How do you spell Judy?”
“With a Y.”
“Oh, the correct way! Good. Anyway, sorry for your loss.”
“You don’t look sorry,” said Judy with a Y.
“Well, I didn’t really know him. Also, my patient is getting his heart. So, honestly, I’m not extremely sorry. I am sorry I am not that sorry, however. If that helps.”
“Murray, shut up,” Lena said. “She’s a lawyer,” she said later, “You don’t want another lawsuit.”
“You don’t know what I want.”
Holy shit. I could not stop reading this. I could have gone for another five hundred pages. Josephine Burg’s writing is so addictive and characteristic even though this is only her first novel. I know I will be devouring every book of hers that comes out from now on.
How weird was this book? It was divided into sections of three, but in more ways than just the POV variation: it was also one-third romance, one-third medical stuff, and one-third courtroom drama. It was one-third sci-fi, one-third fantasy, one-third realism. Murray, Nappy, and Judy each formed one essential perspective of the story as the love story between the latter ones never would have worked if not for Murray’s sobering intervals. And most people wouldn’t have stood five hundred pages of Murray. I love Murray and she is my new favourite literary character ever, or course; but my tastes are unusual.
I see a lot of people here saying that the book was unclear about “the message” it was passing on. Just because a book shows you imperfect people doing imperfect things, that doesn’t mean its narrative is “condoning” what they are doing. It’s not a goddam PSA. It’s time for y’all to graduate from your YA class, twenty-somethings.
IT’S NOT A BOOK’S JOB TO GIVE YOU ALL THE ANSWERS. IF YOU NEED IT ALL SPELLED OUT FOR YOU, READ A SELF-HELP BOOK, A POLITICAL MANIFESTO OR AN ACADEMIC TREATY. OR A STORY FOR CHILDREN. MORAL OF THE STORY: PEOPLE ARE HELLA DIM
That being said, Nappy and Judy were kinda lame as a couple as well as individuals. But the Waterloo silent musical sequence more than makes up for that.
“Delightfully confusing” (3 stars)
– ReevesBentleyNYR ✓
You’ve heard of Gender Identity being a social construct–now get ready for the deconstruction of Genre Identity.
Josephine Burg’s debut novel, A Change of Heart, is nothing if not divisive. It’s been divisive of its readers, who might love it or hate it (or both), it’s been divisive of genres (there are at least three conventions of genre at use here at any given time), it’s been divisive in the characters themselves, who seem professionally accustomed to slipping through the cracks of their own selves.
In constant existential transit, the genre-identity crisis suffered by this novel simply reflects the crises suffered by each of the main characters. The blend of various genres at once is not always a successful one, but A Change of Heart gets away with it, given its premise: if Nappy is experiencing an uncomfortable mixture between his brain and someone else’s heart, in effect, so is the reader.
Is it a stupid premise? Of course, but isn’t that the point? The self-awareness of this novel is so clear it might suffer from a lack of sincerity, if anything. By criticising the outlandishness of its plot every chance it gets, the reader is often taken out of the story by the story itself. That could have been handled better. Then again, any mismatched polarity will inevitably trace back to the allegory of Nappy’s state of mind anyhow.
Not taking itself too seriously ultimately works for the book’s benefit. That is what harsh critics have yet to realise; that the brilliance of the novel lies precisely on its ambivalence. By not disclosing whether Fenton’s heart actually did still keep some of Fenton or if that is just a crazy justification, Burg manages to tell both stories simultaneously and in parallel. It’s not either one or the other, it is both. And that is A Change of Heart’s ultimate magic trick.
“Why is there discourse about this?” (three stars)
I wasn’t going to bother reviewing this well-written mess of a novel, but now that I see some of the discourse surrounding this thing, I feel obligated to break it to everybody: you aren’t supposed to be taking it seriously! By having actual serious debates about it, you are only fulfilling the prophecy of the book that folks will believe any gibberish that is told to them despite how unscientific it may seem.
Murray might be the only smart person, but don’t think for a second that either Nappy or Judy buy the crap they are selling to Olga. Neither does Olga, by the way—she is just using it as a coping mechanism. And we are given plenty of clues that this is what was really happening—for starters, Judy was about to dump Fenton. Why would she have fallen in love with “him” if she had filed for divorce? And the only thing Nappy and Fenton have in common is the heart. If he were being taken over, wouldn’t he have picked up some odd habits as well? The novel is pretty clearly telling you this is just a charade. Even Olga seems to realise that at some point, and that is why she sues, I think.
In any case, you people are insane to think that a novel that includes a dance sequence to ABBA’s Waterloo is actually worried about philosophical questions. Yeah, that does happen. It’s actually the Mamma Mia version of Waterloo, around which there’s a whole musical number staring Nappy and Judy (dressed up as Horatio Nelson). Because it is a book, we are only given the lyrics and the description of the dance moves and costumes. So, yeah. It was funny to think of people doing a musical without any sound; you start to realise how ridiculous it actually looks. But still. Not something to write dissertations about.