Belva Plain's final novel, HEARTWOOD, is a moving story layered in psychological reflection, which has more depth than any simple drama or ordinary work of fiction. This is a book that delves deeply into the psychology of older parents and their adult children, presenting a striking image of one mother's deep-seated need for perfection and impulse to manage her family long past the time when she should stop. This seems a common psychology for many mothers, who support it using the rationale that "it's only because I want them to be happy and successful." We've all known mothers who approach their grown families in this way, and Iris Stern is certainly one who is susceptible to this kind of thinking. She ultimately faces coming to terms with the unpredictability of life's choices and the eventuality of having to accept who her loved ones really are.
HEARTWOOD begins with a decades-long account of the lives of Iris and Theo Stern and their family. They are a Jewish American couple who present a classic picture of the American Dream --- an aging, affluent pair who will soon enter their golden years, having enjoyed separate career paths and feeling fulfilled in having raised their four children well. Iris is a successful college professor, while Theo runs a private practice as a physician. Everyone looks up to them, and together they make ideal parents. They are educated and supportive, enjoy their children's company, and both consistently put a great degree of effort into each and every member of their family.
The Sterns' life story details the many fine and fading years of their devoted marriage and presents the unique challenges that sometimes come with enjoying success. While Iris and Theo have had their problems, these experiences have made them grateful and more able to appreciate one another. This is not to imply that they haven't had concerns about their children over the years. Their sons have cost them many hours of sleep and years of worry, but their daughter has been "the rock," the one who they've all depended on. Laura is the golden child, a young woman with good judgment and a steady heart. She is rational, motivated, happy and loyal to the core. So when she chooses to marry her boyfriend right after high school, neither Iris nor Theo questions it or loses any sleep.
Jumping forward to the present, Laura and Robby are struggling thirty-somethings, and Robby has had ongoing career issues. He's an aspiring archaeologist who's attempting to finish his doctorate degree while working in various jobs. Laura was initially confident that he'd eventually succeed, but now has her doubts and notices a diminishment in the potency of their love. Robby seems to lack both motivation and judgment, and it's becoming disturbing to Laura to recognize that he uses psychological obstacles to create real ones for them all. He works in a competitive and sometimes demoralizing academic atmosphere at a major university, but eventually shows poor judgment with his students, landing the final death blow to his already shaky career.
Recognizing in her husband a tendency toward laziness and flakiness, Laura reacts to these stresses by becoming determined to support her family alone, if need be. She moves them from California to New York City, buys a home and ventures into the catering business, and her family in Manhattan loans her the money that enables the takeoff of her lifelong dream. In no time, she's successful and enjoying a very nice living, but while she and her daughter Katie love the city and appreciate her burgeoning new success, her husband never does and repeatedly chooses separation --- but never divorce. Robby flees to his hometown in Ohio while Laura is left alone in New York for long stretches, devoting her own efforts entirely to catering and pursuing publicity for her growing business.
In pursuing her own career, Laura faces a new obstacle when she meets an attractive and very alluring young photographer who quickly captures her heart. She was raised traditionally and so feels unable to walk out on Robby, or equally to face a lifetime devoid of love. Torn between duty and entitlement, Laura is stuck, yet she knows that her family would never approve of her leaving Robby and would become even more condemning if they discovered she had engaged in an affair.
HEARTWOOD marks the end of Belva Plain's remarkable career as a successful writer with more than 20 novels that have been New York Times bestsellers. This fine author passed away in October 2010, and her final drama is a testament to her extraordinary talent and an experience readers of fiction and romance should heartily enjoy.
--- Reviewed by Melanie Smith