The Heart of the Matter

Read an excerpt of Irreplaceable. Excerpt.

More book reviews.

Every year in the United States, six thousand people die awaiting an organ transplant. In his debut novel, Irreplaceable (published by Voice), Stephen Lovely '88 plucks one story from the thousands and shocks it—and his readers—into animated life. In the story's opening scene, a woman named Isabel bicycles through the fields of Iowa, racing against an approaching rainstorm. She's working off stress, enjoying the humidity, anticipating getting home to her husband and dog. Then a truck comes roaring over a hill and Isabel's life ends.

But Isabel was an organ donor, and her heart goes to a Chicago art teacher named Janet. Overwhelmed and grateful, Janet manages to track down where her new heart came from, and, against the conventions of a purposefully anonymous donor system, gets in touch with Isabel's grieving husband Alex and his mother-in-law Bernice.

The reasons for the traditional anonymity soon become clear. Alex is cold and resentful, Bernice can't seem to let go, and Janet's own husband, David, doesn't understand why she can't just move on. What's worse, the driver of the truck that hit Isabel begins stalking Janet, sickly convinced that he's her saving angel.

Lovely, who graduated from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, draws on the seven years he spent as a night clerk in a pediatric intensive care unit. He currently directs the Iowa Young Writers' Studio at the University of Iowa, a summer creative writing program for high school students.

He manages the intertwining stories in his novel with considerable grace. His realistic, absorbing characters ground the drama that in less skillful hands might go over the top. Alex, Bernice, and Janet are all flawed human beings, each struggling to adapt to a life forever altered by a literally heart-rending act of generosity they didn't ask for.

"What if it would bring my wife back? Would you give it back?" Alex asks Janet at one point. "The heart? And die myself?" Janet replies. "No."

"I decided not to die a long time ago," she tells him.

Lovely's writing style grafts the poetic onto the muscular. His metaphors are concise, his knowledge of the medical procedures persuasive but never confusing. The novel also happens to make a convincing argument for organ donation without preachiness.

In the excerpt, Janet is about to get her new heart, and her family and the friends she's made in the critical care ward gather round to send her off.

—Traci Vogel DeliciousFacebook FacebookStumbleUpon StumbleUponDigg Diggreddit reddit