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Bottle Rocket Hearts [Paperback]

Zoe Whittall
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

April 14 2007
Winner of the 2008 Dayne Ogilvie Grant

Welcome to Montreal in the months before the 1995 referendum. Riot Grrl gets bought out and mass marketed as the Spice Girls, and gays are gaining some legitimacy, but the queers are rioting against assimilation, cocktail AIDS drugs are starting to work, and the city walls on either side of the Main are spray-painted with the words YES or NO. It's been five years since the OKA crisis and the sex garage riots; revolution seems possible, when you're 18, like Eve. Eve is pining to get out of her parent's house in Dorval and find a girl who wants to kiss her back. She meets Della - mysterious, defiantly non-monogamous, an avid separatist and ten years older. Initially taken in by a mutual other-worldly sense of rapture, they hole up in Della's apartment trying to navigate spaces of jealousy when a biker bomb goes off down the street. Their explosive beginning makes way for an even more volatile relationship that spans the following two years. Answering an ad for a roommate at the gay bookstore, Eve meets a new family of friends: Seven, homo-core sweetheart who defies all clichés, and Rachael, type-A activist and motivated poet. On the night of the 1995 referendum politics and romance come to a head and Eve's naiveté begins to fade. From naïve teenager to hot shot tough girl, Eve decides her own fate.  

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Review

Zoe Whittall’s Bottle Rocket Hearts comprises a journey through the unforgiving territory of the heart. Eve is a young woman in search of love and perfection, on the hunt for another heart like her own. She comes from a home that “smells like oregano and brewed coffee and vanilla candles,” but she is determined to tear through the curtain of what she regards as fake suburban security. Desperate to escape her parents’ narrow world, Eve falls in love with an older woman, Della, who is both seductive and steadfastly unfaithful. Against a backdrop of biker bombs and the Quebec referendum of 1995, eighteen-year-old Eve tries to figure out who she is and what she wants.
Her explorations of sex, independence, and politics are poignant and oddly naive. “Everything I had was imperfect in some way” she declares, yearning for the elegant dexterity of her gay friends. She moves in with a couple of roommates, Rachel and Seven, and their cat named Gertrude Stein. One of them is a stripper, one of them is HIV-positIve, and Eve is depressed by her own caution, her own yearning for comfort and monogamy. All of her friends are cooler, tougher, bolder than she is. “Compared to Jenny, I was a cautious introvert. Compared to Seven, I was a great-grandmother.” She is the one who looks innocent and child-like.
While strong teen spirit provides this novel with indubitable energy, the book trades too much on its patina of sex and swearing, recreational drug use, and the erotic space of want. Eve’s jealousy about Della’s many liaisons seems almost illogical, given how much she seeks to toughen her heart. Ultimately, then, this is just another disappointed love story, where one of the two pretends to be something she is not (Della), and the other falls wide-eyed into love’s quicksand. The title of the novel is perfect: it is a “dollar store bottle rocket,” the kind that fizzles as it falls.
Aritha van Herk (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada

"Bottle Rocket Hearts... is a coming-of-age tale that goes down like a cherry popsicle. It's a delicious, bright suburban delicacy melting in the inner-city sun.... Buy it, read it, and then keep it for you daughters." -- NOW Magazine

"Whittall has created characters who combine the luminous joie-de-vivre of Oscar Wilde with the self-destructive fury of Johnny Rotten. A portrait of Montreal in the mid-nineties that successfully recreates its hedonistic, Salvation Army band, gender-bending glory." -- Heather O'Neill, author of CBC Canada Reads-winning Lullabies for Little Criminals

"Zoe Whittall is so real. Her writing conjures up all the joy and toughness and melancholy of being a girl, elegant and scruffy at the same time, in the best way. She's awesome." -- Michelle Tea, author of Rose of No Man's Land

"Bottle Rocket Hearts is about coming of age, identity, politics, the nature of love and who constitutes family. Anyone who is different in any way will relate ... Whittall's background as a poet shines in every paragraph. Her poetic voice hits hard and with beauty ... Bottle Rocket Hearts is a compelling story told by a writer skilled in her craft. It leaves me wanting more." -- The Vancouver Sun, July 14, 2007

"Bottle Rocket Hearts is assured, gripping and sincere. [Whittall's] characters are richly detailed and wonderfully, quirkily vibrant. The people in this book jump out of the pages and into your heart ... Bottle Rocket Hearts is a delightful novel whose characters will stay in my thoughts for a long time to come." -- Xtra!, June 21, 2007

"Zoe Whittall might just possibly be the cockiest, brashest, funniest, toughest, most life-affirming, elegant, scruffy, no-holds-barred writer to emerge from Montreal since Mordecai Richler ... Bottle Rocket Hearts is a major statement about lessening unhappiness by overcoming the small dishonesties that creep into everyday life." -- The Globe and Mail, May 26, 2007

"Zoe Whittall's Bottle Rocket Hearts presents a mature, honest, and sophisticated portrayal of the lives of individuals belonging to Montreal's homosexual community during the 1995 Referendum in Quebec. As coming-of-age novels go, Whittall's on top of her game here, and she delivers a remarkably strong, sharp, and insightful addition to the ever-growing library of gay literature ... what sets her apart from other young Canadian writers is her ability to write an engaging story that wrestles with many complex and competing issues without demanding that the reader agree with any of her own personal politics ... her novel is successfully sincere and honest ... For those seeking strong characterization, engrossing storytelling, and thoughtful execution, Bottle Rocket Hearts delivers on all fronts. Whittall's characters are quirky, true to life, and fully capture the lifestyle of Montreal in the mid-nineties. Whittall's prose, while simple, paint's a vivid picture ... Her writing is clear, concise, and always captivating, and its simplicity is very much the reason for the novel's success: her portrayal of life is gritty and real, and while not without heart, it doesn't easily give way to sentimentality or cheap romanticism. A mighty good read." -- The Silhouette, July 13, 2007

"Zoe Whittall's debut novel, Bottle Rocket Hearts, is an achingly good read, bringing moments of joy to the reader along with heartache and sorrow ... Bottle Rocket Hearts is full of sarcasm, name-dropping and style punctuated with a queer, feminist twist. This book comes alive for the reader and is a lovely coming-of-age story for women to reflect on and perhaps even relate to their daughters." -- The Calgary Herald, June 3, 2007

About the Author

Zoe Whittall, originally from Montreal, where she attended Concordia University, now lives in Toronto. Her previous books include The Emily Valentine Poems and The Ten Best Minutes of Your Life, both volumes of poetry. She edited the anthology Geek, Misfits & Outlaws. She has written for The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and NOW Magazine.

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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars caught off guard March 29 2011
By SSKMB
Format:Paperback
First I have to say that this book is about lesbian and gay relationships in the 90's. I wasn't aware of that and might not have picked up the book had I known. It's just a little foreign to me.
That said, I was whisked away by Zoe's amazing writing in the first couple pages - before figuring out the subject matter. I finished the book and really, REALLY enjoyed her writing. I'll look forward to reading her future novels.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Stole My Heart April 17 2011
By D. Sorel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Do not be fooled by this slender novel because Whittall packs in quite a punch! Set against the backdrop of Montreal's 1995 referendum, Whittall brings the reader into a world where rebellion is the norm and assimilation is not a guarantee. It is here that the reader meets Eve who is young and naive in this changing city. She wants more than anything to move out of her parents' house and start a life of her own. When she meets Della, Eve thinks that she has found the answer to her prayers. Della is older, experienced, and wild. While Eve learns a great deal from Della's antics, she learns even more from herself and her reactions to life with Della. In a roundabout way, she is finally able to accept herself and gain confidence in her decisions.

The turmoil of the 1990s in Montreal is a fantastic setting for this novel in which all of the main characters are in emotional flux. Whittall's writing is refreshing and a delight to read. Her characters have great depth and even those who are antagonizing someone find a way to win your heart. Overall, this is well-worth a read and a re-read.
5.0 out of 5 stars a sort of creative autobiography for those who have tried to live in uncharted territory Sept. 20 2007
By Elevate Difference - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If I were to describe Bottle Rocket Hearts as a sort of creative autobiography replete with journal excerpts and a first person narrator, which also reads like a queer coming of age novel, you probably wouldn't want to read it. But for anyone who has ever tried to align their politics with their personal life and discovered a plethora of limits and contradictions, this book will be a fun, fast-paced read. And it has punk rock bulging from the seams and postmodern emotional conundrums that will resonate with those who have tried to live in uncharted territory. Having read Zoe Whittal's tightly crafted tale, I've had to reassess my position on the idea that diaries are cheesy and coming of age novels are boring. Bottle Rocket Hearts suggests otherwise.

The narrative follows Eve - an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in the suburbs of Montreal - through her first "Revolutionary Relationship" with Della who thinks Eve is older than she is. We witness Eve's multifarious developments: her attempt to forge a new community of "queers and artists and adulthood;" get an apartment downtown; make mixed tapes; do drugs; get and lose a job, friends and a girlfriend. She becomes an activist and has ridiculous pangs of jealousy when the girlfriend's ex (aptly named XXXX because "her name is too evil to write or say out loud") makes an appearance to narrator Eve's "most insecure moments."

I found Whittal's descriptions of the latter to be refreshingly bang-on, treated with a fantastic sense of humour and the distinct awareness of the ironies at play: "intellectually non-monogamy made complete sense; emotionally it felt like sand-paper across my eyelids." And this is one of my favorite lines: "The trouble with deciding not to define anything is that it usually means you have to talk a lot more about what you're not defining than you would if you employed the time-honoured grade nine approach to Going Steady."

We find out early on that for the narrator "people who journal always seem more grounded" and, later on, "the difference between fiction and non is almost arbitrary." In a sense, the changes found in the narrator's attitudes towards writing, starting from a position where the diary represents a space for grounding thoughts (i.e., transparency, honesty) to the realization that truth and fiction are (unfortunately) difficult to discern, also marks out the space of her coming of age, personally and as an author. And coming of age is probably a convenient misnomer in this case, because Bottle Rocket Hearts is more about the negotiations involved in coming into an identity, a process that is arguably endless and nuanced rather than fixed and simple.

"'Femme.' I mouthed it to myself, giggling. 'Okay.' For some reason this sounded good, like it fit more than any other moniker hoisted on me like queer, lesbian, bi, whatever. None of those felt right. Femme. Okay, that works."
4.0 out of 5 stars Enchanting. July 23 2007
By groovymamma - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
An original tale written in a unique voice. Eve is a young woman coming of age and coming out at the same time, the results of which are well explored in this beautifully written narrative. Eve meets Della, an older lesbian whom charms her young self into a passionate love affair, Eve's first. Issues like homophobia and jealousy are explored in detail amid a backdrop of an alternative lifestyle set in 90's Montreal, complete with rallies and murder, music and art.
The main character is fully realized and completely lovable with her lethal combination of vulnerability and strength. The other characters too, read real and alive, especially her roomate Seven, a gay struggling with his HIV status and joie de vivre.
Through tragedy and love, Eve comes to learn that everyone is in possession of a "bottle rocket heart"..."common, sturdy, but still potentially explosive".
An amazing talent.
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