Tom Hope is a good man. He is kind. He is reliable. Unfortunately, he is also unlucky in love. His first wife leaves him twice, foists an illegitimate child on him, and then snatches that child away after Tom grew to love him. But The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman, is not the story of Tom’s first marriage. Instead, it is the story of his second marriage and the long healing it provides for himself and his Holocaust-scarred wife, Hannah Babel.
I had requested this book so long ago from NetGalley that I had forgotten it was a Holocaust book. The first chapters didn’t do much to remind me, as they open on the last weeks of Tom’s troubled marriage on his farm somewhere in Victoria, Australia, in 1962. Tom frets and broods at his farm, wondering what he might have done to keep his first wife while trying to take care of her child, Peter. He broods even more when, after Peter turns five, his first wife reclaims the boy and whisks him away to a repressive Christian community south of Melbourne.
The only things that finally shakes Tom out of his funk are his determination to start dating again and his fortuitous meeting with Hannah Babel shortly after he makes that decision. Hannah has arrived in Hometown, the biggest settlement near Tom’s farm, to launch a bookstore. Hannah’s quirky joie de vivre brings Tom back to full life. Before long, the two are lovers. Then they are engaged. They’re married before the halfway point of the novel; this book is truly a whirlwind.
The only fly in the ointment is Peter’s situation. The boy is desperately unhappy with the Christians. He’s been singled out for a lot of corporal punishment because he refuses to follow the dictates of the communities leader and because he keeps trying to run away to get back to Tom. Tom would swoop in in a heartbeat to rescue Peter if he could do it with the law’s blessing—and if the presence of a young boy didn’t stir up painful memories for Hannah of the loss of her own child at Auschwitz.
My only criticism—and it’s really more of a quibble—is that it feels a little too fast. I wanted to wallow in this book and its wonderfully unique characters, but it was over almost before I knew it. Still, this is just a preference thing. I think other readers who like unusual love stories and give extra points for an uncommon setting will find a lot to love here.
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is great book group fare. There’s plenty to talk about as readers learn more about Hannah’s past and her heartbreaking memories. Tom’s struggles with rejection and love are also a fruitful avenue for discussion. It’s a lightning fast read, so group members are more likely to finish it on time. It’s in a fresh setting and Hillman skillfully recreates rural Australia in the 1960s and early 1970s, both the physical landscape and the social mores. At times, it felt like a lighter version of the classic Australian novel, A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute, which also tells the story of characters finding love at healing in the Australian Outback after harrowing experiences during World War II.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.