Tuesday, January 5, 2016


"Love can make people do terrible things."

Small-town Virginia 1977, a small enclave seemingly insulated from the general madness of the world. This is where narrator Richard "Rocky" Askew, almost eight, lives with his mother, father (the Old Man), and half-brother Paul, sixteen. Rocky, the "good kid," is "excessively governed and supervised,...imprisoned by his mother's anxieties" due to "what had become or appeared to be becoming of Paul."

By real world standards, Paul feels far from a bad kid, but in Spencerville, driving your Chevy Nova around town while smoking cigarettes, wearing your hair long, and listening to loud rock music is what constitutes a "bad kid" and that's how Paul is labeled. He starts out as a stellar big brother to Rocky, teaching Rocky about the greats of rock and roll and often letting him tag along with Paul and his girlfriend Leigh, daughter of a prominent local judge (none too happy about his top student-athlete daughter's relationship with a no-good like Paul Askew).

When left by the Old Man to bear a family burden alone, it's the last straw for Paul. Full of vengeance and misguided empathy, Paul undertakes a course of action that narrowly eludes disaster. The next day, Paul and Leigh run off, leaving devastation in their wake.

The lives of the Askews are also entwined with those of the Culvers, Brad and Jane, who live on the neighboring Twin Oaks property, a larger, historical parcel the Old Man was, in his mind, not good enough to buy when he tried. In the words of Rocky, "[the Culvers'] hands have been on every bad thing that's happened" to his family.

The troubled dynamic of the two families is set off on a new, fateful course when, eight years following the disappearance of Paul and Leigh, Rocky takes on work at the Culver stables, leading to a relationship with their daughter Patricia, many years Rocky's senior:

To the few people I've told about Patricia over the years, I have described her as a mysterious older woman who, through chance and circumstance, took me to bed and stole my innocence. To men, I would treat the whole experience as a naughty little conquest. To women, I would relate it as a dark secret that had marked me with a lingering, melancholy vulnerability. The truth was something more complicated.

The drama set up by Paul and Leigh's disappearance, Rocky and Patricia's "romance," and the Old Man's dealings with Brad Culver was palpable and I devoured and adored the first half of Only Love Can Break Your Heart. The characters and their relationships were engrossing and I was drawn into their world and issues very quickly; I simply didn't want to put the book down. My heart ached for Rocky, I felt for Paul but also wanted to smack him upside the head, same with the Old Man. The family dynamics were compelling, often sad, and always very human.

Tarkington's writing is beautiful and I flagged many passages throughout, but the second half of the story felt a bit loose and amorphous to me. A mystery is thrown into the last quarter and solved with a bit of a whimper, secondary characters appear and then seem to have trouble finding a place, and the crescendo really never crescendoed. I went from knowing I had to have a copy of Only Love for my shelf to the lesser but still positive vibe of being glad I'd found the book and this author. No doubt I will read Ed Tarkington's next offering.

STREET SENSE: Lovely and engaging writing, unique characters, and intriguing relationships and family dynamics highlight this tale of family, love, and tragedy. While the story flagged for me in the second half, I still recommend the book to those readers who aren't sticklers for a watertight plot over character and writing.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: We must all recall the incomprehensible spite of the schoolyard bully: The random selectivity of his malice, the helpless acquiescence of his prey. Perhaps worse of all, the pathetic betrayal of the victim's so-called friends, who stand aside or perhaps even laugh and jeer, loyalty being a far less powerful instinct than self-preservation. Instead of forming a line of defense, they part and flee, like the herd of wildebeests on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, blithely trotting away as the lion gorges on the the entrails of some unfortunate straggler while Marlin Perkins voices airy platitudes about the circle of life.

COVER NERD SAYS:  By now it should come as no surprise that the cover of Only Love is what initially caught my eye while I was perusing the NetGalley shelves. I had not heard of the book or Ed Tarkington when I clicked to read the summary based solely on the cover image. The title and fonts gave me the feeling I might like what was inside. In fact, even though I'm not a huge fan of the font used for the author's name, it evoked something lighter and humorous that made me curious as to how those elements might co-exist. Strangely, this is the second 2016 title to switch covers on me. When I started reading, the cover didn't speak to me as much as it did when I first saw it. A quick Google search revealed the initial cover below, which I like much more than the blue one. I think the brown fits much better and the author font presents much better in black. Overall, well done.


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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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