By: Cassandra King
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
In Queen of Broken Hearts, novelist Cassandra King has written a very perceptive modern-day novel of manners. Set in Fairhope, Alabama, the book paints an excellent picture of the town’s upper crust—people who sip Dom Perignon, eat candied ginger, inhabit beautiful interiors, and dance the tango. But King, building her narrative around the central theme of marriage and divorce, delves far beneath this surface sophistication to expose the faults and failures of a number of Fairhope’s finest.
The novel is replete with troubled marriages, and the book’s narrator Clare, a widow who owns a divorce-counseling business, stands ready to help one and all. Her best friend Dory, a new-age Babe Paley, is abused by her sophomoric husband, who is perfectly named Son. Clare’s friend (and finally lover) Lex, a transplant from Maine, has an unfulfilling marriage with a manipulative ice goddess. Then there is Clare’s step-daughter Haley, somewhat of an innocent who is caught in a dreary marriage with an unfaithful husband.
In her efforts to help others get through the trauma of their failed marriages, Clare leaves unresolved issues about her own marriage. Guilt and fear brought on by the suicide of her husband still plague her, and she seems unable to enter into a full relationship with another man. She rejects the overtures of two suitors, both of whom want a more intimate relationship with her.
First there is Rye. Despite her deserved sense of self-worth, Clare can’t quite forget her blue-collar background and is much too dazzled by the aristocratic bachelor Rye. But King leaves no doubt that he is a modern Lord Chesterfield who snobbishly thinks of himself as Fairhope’s arbiter of taste.
In the case of the second suitor, Lex, easily the most sympathetic person in the novel, we know that Clare has made a mistake in building a wall around herself. Dory and Haley know it too, and they take it upon themselves to counsel the counselor. Through their help and Lex’s, she breaks out of her self-protective shell.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Queen of Broken Hearts is King’s refusal to accept easy answers to the complexities of human relationships. An acute observer of modern-day life, she gently exposes the imperfections of her characters, leaving even villains some redeeming touches. We end her engaging narrative thinking, “Life ain’t so bad, even if it is a bitch sometimes.” And that in itself is a real achievement.
Norman McMillan is the author of the memoir Distant Son and of the plays, Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses.