How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson

How To Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson
How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson

Recently, in romance blogland, someone asked where the older romance heroine has gone. I can tell you this much: she’s not in this book.

My biggest problem with How to Break Your Own Heart is that it’s not a romance. If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have picked it up—it’s not the sort of premise I’d invest time in unless I know there will be a happy ending.

Yes, I read the back of the book. Oh, it deceived me. And so did the book’s nomination for a R*BY Award for Romantic Elements. Seriously, I’m not sure which Australian romance readers judged this book, but the readers I know would throw it against the wall.

Amelia Bradlow is content with her life. Her husband, Ed, isn’t the most demonstrative man on earth, but he loves her and provides for her. She has a job, and although it’s not the most wonderful career ever, she’s fine with it. But she’s 37 and approaching the point of no return for having a baby. To her dismay, it seems Ed isn’t so keen on children.

When Amelia starts spending more time with her best friend, Kiki, she starts questioning whether or not her marriage is as perfect as it seems. From having separate bedrooms, to the issue of kids, to Ed’s reluctance to change their comfortable routine—Amelia must decide how she wants to live the rest of her life before it’s too late.

Love triangle

I knew from reading the ending first that there’s an alternative hero in this book. Joseph was Amelia’s Might’ve-Been in high school. A friend of her brother’s, Joseph had a girlfriend at the time, and it didn’t end well.

But the problem with the setup is that Maggie Alderson starts off by recounting Ed’s courtship of Amelia. It’s actually a lovely, gentle, old-fashioned romance in France, and I wanted Ed and Amelia to have a happy ending.

Soon, of course, the cracks in their present relationship become obvious: they sleep in separate beds, Ed hates Amelia’s haircut, Ed hates Kiki’s influence on her, Ed doesn’t like Amelia working … and so on. Demonise the husband much?

Amelia encounters Joseph again at a party, and she feels sparks flying. Joseph says some things that imply he’s interested in her and has thought of her over the years.


First, the guy was a two-timing slut in high school. I don’t care if he liked Amelia—you don’t do that to your best friend’s sister, of all people. Second, I don’t care if he’s pined for her for the last two decades—not that I can believe it—you don’t go pushing the boundaries with someone else’s wife.

Show stoppers

*** Major spoilers. Skip to the next section if you don’t want to read them. ***

So if adultery is a showstopper for you, don’t pick up this book. While Amelia and Ed are ‘working out their problems’, she ends up in bed with Joseph. It was glorious! She has her first orgasm! But when Ed wants to work things out, she goes along to see if they can talk it out like adults … and then she sleeps with Ed! Except Ed realises her bedroom technique has changed, so he knows she cheated on him.

Oh, and Joseph may have been married at the time. Also, he may have slept with Kiki.

You know what, some porntastic scenes might actually have made this plot bearable.

Ye olde biological clock

Seriously, if at 37 years of age (and with the benefit of a decent education) you all of a sudden realise that your biological clock is ticking, you’re an idiot.

Amelia’s desire for a baby outweighs all the other good things in her life. It pissed me off, to be honest.

And Kiki is childless, not out of choice, but because she can’t conceive. That pissed me off, too.

The only character in the story who doesn’t want a baby is Ed, and he’s painted out to be the bad guy because of this, never mind the fact that the story is littered with horrible parents and Ed actually has genuine emotional/psychological reasons for not wanting kids.

There are other stupid little details around this issue of not wanting babies. Amelia starts hating Ed’s insistence on using a condom. For years, these people have used condoms. Why didn’t Ed just get a full vasectomy?

So Amelia’s fear of never having the opportunity to be a mother drives her most important decisions in this book. Basically, she has a midlife crisis and, after years of leeching off her husband, decides to trade him in.

What happens when you can’t stand the heroine

I just couldn’t believe Amelia. For a well-travelled, 37-year old woman, she sounded like a 60-year old nanna who has never read an issue of Cosmo in her life. She’s passive-aggressive, and her behaviour made me feel sorry for Ed. Ed wasn’t even that likeable by the end—he has anger management and possibly self-obsession issues—but I still felt like he wasted the best years of his life on Amelia.

Amelia’s character development serves the plot. For example, she’s never had orgasm and doesn’t really know her feminine power, yet she manages to flirt her brother out of trouble just because she’s wearing some flattering clothes. Blech.

Yay or nay?

I can’t recommend this book to romance readers. But if you’re after women’s fiction with a kind of Britishy feel to it (Aussie readers might understand what I’m talking about here), I guess this book might work.

How to Break Your Own Heart is listed in the 2009 Books Alive Guide.

How to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie AldersonHow to Break Your Own Heart by Maggie Alderson

Title: How to Break Your Own Heart (excerpt)
Author: Maggie Alderson
ISBN: 9780143009658 | 9780718104924
Release date: August 2008
Publisher: Penguin Australia
Format: C format

Where you can buy this book

AUSTRALIA: Booktopia | Borders | Dymocks | Fishpond | Nile | More
EBOOKS: Not available
WORLDWIDE: Amazon US | Amazon UK | The Book Depository

2009 Books Alive ChallengeNew Author Challenge 2009


  1. SonomaLass says:

    Wow, I’m glad you read this rather than me!  I would have hated it, for almost all the same reasons.
    I’m especially bothered by the idea that they got married with such differing views on having kids, and then they didn’t get any help/counseling to resolve such a fundamental make-or-break marital issue.
    Good review, though!

  2. Anida Adler says:

    God, just from the plot and all this sounds like a book I would not want to read.  Kudos to anyone who can bear to work through such sad fiction for the sake of learning a few life lessons, I can’t.  Bring on the HEA!

  3. Jo says:

    Look, at the risk of sounding critical, if the only books you can bear to read are romances with a guaranteed happy ending, then just stick to the Mills & Boon genre. Maggie’s book might have a lot of flaws (i didn’t find as many as you all seem to have) but the fact that everyone in the book wasn’t perfect was actually a plus for me. Someone said recently that when did it become mandatory for characters to be universally nice, likeable and endearing? And how damn boring it is. Happy endings are wonderful, but they don’t happen as much as we would hope and maybe books that allow the occasional unhappy ending are worth more than the quite nasty review and, quite frankly, almost hysterical comments i’ve read here today.

  4. Kat says:

    Hi, Jo. I’m not sure how to address you comments because I get the feeling you’re not familiar with the romance genre (of which Mills and Boon publishes one particular type of romance book, but it certainly doesn’t typify all romance books).

    I don’t mind reading about imperfect characters because I agree with you that it’s the imperfections that make characters more interesting and their conflicts more believable. However, I felt that Amelia’s character was weakly rendered, and that the conflicts in this book were driven by where the plot needed to be rather than how the characters, as they were introduced and set up by the author, would’ve acted. I would have respected the ending more if Amelia had not ended up with Joseph (and hence no romantic happy ending). She shows no character growth and no greater sense of self awareness, yet the story is resolved as though she does.

    I do thank you for stopping by and commenting on this review. As you can see, I like to talk about books—good or bad. I regret that you found my review (and I use the term loosely because it’s more a reader opinion than a literary criticism) distasteful, but I really, really, really didn’t like this book. This is my opinion, of course, and anyone reading this review is free to make up their own mind whether or not their reading preferences are similar to mine.

  5. anna says:

    I didn’t like this book much either – but mainly because I found the high drama of the second part of the book overly melodramatic – clunky plot devices. I did think there was a bit of self discovery … shifting from coasting through life via the easy route to recognising to herself that the very presentable Ed was controlling, self interested (even the ‘romantic’ meet-cute was all about him, on his terms) etc and that it was time she seized the day so to speak. 
    Think my favourite part of this book was the older lady next door – some great shared moments and a real sense of absence when she wasn’t around.

  6. Kat says:

    It’s been a while since I read this book, so my memory of the details are fuzzy, but in hindsight I think you’re right—Amelia learned things about herself. My problem was that she never really thought of anyone but herself and didn’t make much of an effort to work things out with Ed. Ed wasn’t perfect, but I felt he was demonised, basically to turn Amelia into some sort of martyr and to make Joseph look better in comparison. But as I said, my memory of this book isn’t very clear anymore. I just remember that I disliked it with a passion.

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