Cassandra King

"Queen of Broken Hearts"

(Reviewed by Terez Rose AUG 4, 2007)

Queen of Broken Hearts by Casandra King

Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife and The Same Sweet Girls, knows what her readers want and knows how to deliver. In Queen of Broken Hearts she gives us Clare Ballenger, a divorce therapist who, with a nudge from friends and life circumstances, must decide whether to follow her own advice: acknowledge the pain and mistakes of the past, then move on to wholly embrace life again.

Clare, a widow of five years, is best at helping other women mend their broken hearts, a career she has always poured her energies into. Outside work, she tries to relax and enjoy time spent with her own friends and loved ones. But life does not always follow the rules of her psychology textbooks. Her best friend Dory’s reconciliation with estranged husband Son frustrates and perplexes Clare. Equally unnerving is her own daughter Haley’s increasing marital strife and its effect on the entire family. Clare finds strength, however, in her relationships with disparate types—Rye, her former husband’s cousin, whose affection becomes more than cousinly; Lex, an outspoken Yankee marina owner on the mend from his own troubled marriage; Zoe Catherine, her free-thinking former mother-in-law, who offers her coastline property and bird sanctuary for Clare to develop a retreat center. Through trials and help from friends, Clare works to bring this long-harbored dream to fruition. Will the new endeavor succeed? More importantly, will she herself break free from the constraints of the past and take a chance with the present?

King offers the reader plenty of what she writes best—engrossing storytelling, lively dialogue, heartfelt issues laced with humor and pathos. Her depictions of scenery, characters and local culture are vivid and evocative. Particularly well-drawn are Zoe Catherine, her partner Cooter and the bird sanctuary where they live, as well as the mystical Jubilee night (a brilliantly described local fishing phenomenon where the fish in the bay mysteriously leap to the surface and all but swim ashore).

The opening scene is a bit confusing—a droll account of Clare going to great lengths to avoid an encounter with Son, followed by a street-side conversation with Rye. While the writing entertains, the scenes feel oddly detached from the rest of the story, as if an editor had suggested “starting it lively and hilarious,” then using the ensuing dialogue between Clare and Rye to explain the situation and the story’s set-up. Writing first chapters are always challenging—the literary equivalent of merging with Interstate traffic from a stopped position. King succeeds here, but readers unfamiliar with her writing might assume this is chick lit, as Clare attempts a comical escape from one charismatic male, then encounters another on the street, a handsome friend who regards her for long affectionate moments, before she returns home to a third charismatic male. This, however, is neither chick lit nor a romance novel (in spite of Rye’s description as sardonic, breathtakingly handsome, and having long dark lashes and fine grey eyes that blaze). Happily, by the second chapter, the story settles into place in the absorbing, elegant style that has won King so many women’s fiction readers.

As she did in The Same Sweet Girls, King gives her protagonist a gripping backstory and weaves it through the present-day narrative. Clare’s recounting of meeting Dory, who then introduces her to husband-to-be Mack is flawlessly executed and achingly sweet. The rest of the backstory marks the trajectory of Clare’s relationship with Mack and its tragic conclusion. While both backstory and present story work well, together they do not fully balance out. Hints are dropped about Mack’s “demons” and Clare’s failure to “save him,” but no further conflict is mentioned for another 150 pages. When this portion of the story is finally addressed, the reader is hit with unexpected—and crucial—information about one of the other characters that changes the tack of the story. While the delay of this scene may serve to show the reader that Clare herself is reluctant to address this issue of her past, it makes for an unevenly paced novel, with the dramatic late development of the backstory threatening to overshadow the milder present-day story.

Nonetheless King is a wonderful storyteller and a great illustrator of the human condition. Through this exploration of friendships, loss and self-discovery, King depicts fully realized, very human characters, both men and women, who always resist cliché. King has a gift for portraying difficult men, such as Dory’s husband Son, without judging them as villains, and indeed, proving to Clare that just because she doesn’t like her best friend’s husband doesn’t mean he isn’t the right man for her friend. And in regards to her own former husband, what might have become a maudlin exploration of Clare’s grief over his death is deftly handled, demonstrating her sense of residual pain and guilt without succumbing to sentimentality.

Queen of Broken Hearts is solid, assured storytelling, sure to please King’s fans and gain her new ones (count me in here) who will enjoy her earlier novels as well, particularly The Sunday Wife and The Same Sweet Girls (count me in here as well).

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews


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About the Author:

Cassandra KingCassandra King is a native of Alabama, where she formerly taught English and creative writing classes. She has published stories and essays in various quarterlies and anthologies,

King is married to best-selling southern writer, Pat Conroy.  They live in South Carolina. She has three sons from a previous marriage.

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