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‘The Queen of Hearts:’ a Heartrending Drama

4.5 Stars

By Faith A. Pak, Crimson Staff Writer

Kimmery Martin’s “The Queen of Hearts” tells the story of Zadie Anson and Emma Colley, best friends who are living the dream. They’re both rich, successful doctors, happily married with beautiful children, living in the suburban paradise of Charlotte, North Carolina. With such a picture-perfect premise, something catastrophic is bound to happen, and indeed it does, as dirty secrets that have been broiling underneath the shiny surface of their friendship for 20 years come to life. The rupture comes in the form of the charismatic Nick Xenokostas, known as Dr. X to his worshipping students, who was romantically involved with Zadie in medical school. He comes back into the two friends’ lives during a crisis, reopening wounds and asking unanswered questions from a tragedy in their past.

Handled by a less tasteful writer, “The Queen of Hearts” might have been nothing more than melodramatic fluff, like a novelization of “Grey’s Anatomy.” It certainly feels like a TV drama, as it follows character types with easy-to-understand backstories and their own particular quirks and tics, who navigate the quickly-changing tides of professional and personal alliances. The main drive of the story simply comes from the (incredibly frustrating) delay of the big reveal (which is not very surprising). But Martin’s extraordinary sensitivity and empathy shines through during moments of crisis, which draw out the subtle, complex shades of her characters. The novel is emotionally exhausting—partly because of its accurate depiction of the relentless 100-mile-an-hour pace of the lives of working mothers—but ultimately because it tests the furthest limits of forgiveness and understanding.

When she isn’t writing, Martin is an emergency room doctor from Charlotte, North Carolina, and she writes in the afterword that she took the advice, “write what you know,” to heart. She is confident and comfortable in depicting the hospital—an excellent setting for a drama—as doctors are constantly working on the border between life and death. Crises come about organically in such an environment, and the characters come to terms with these obstacles with gripping psychological realism. Alongside incredibly detailed descriptions of work in the operating room, the novel is also chock-full of tender, funny moments from Zadie and Emma’s family lives. It’s a book of extremes, and reading it feels like being taken through a whirlwind of emotions ranging from elation to despair.

The characters of Zadie and Emma are also at extremes, which makes for an entertaining read. Zadie is short and sweet, bubbling with easy charm and maternal warmth, as Zadie is “all shining earnestness and sincerity, with her lilting, lovely eyes and the childish sweep of her snub nose and her little chin,” while Emma is tall and model-like, with blond hair and “swimming-pool-clear-blue-eyes,” standing “alone in the crowd, an ice queen, always reacting a beat too late.” Emma is a fastidious type A, Zadie is a lovably clumsy type B. Their personalities alternatively clash and harmonize, and although the romantic relationships play a huge part in the novel, the true love story is between these two friends. Martin has a true gift for characterization, which is also showcased in the quick sketches of the peripheral characters of the husbands, friends, and children who make up the surrounding chatter.

The novel is structured in alternating chapters from either Zadie or Emma’s point of view, and switching between the past and present-day. It works well for the most part, although it takes some getting used to. Zadie and Emma’s difference in character also becomes clearer as the novel progresses—at first it was difficult to tell who was who—and sometimes it was difficult to keep track of whether something happened 20 years in the past or in the present, especially when switching between jargon-filled operating scenes.

The only part that feels forced is the soft ending, which Martin seemingly chooses because she cannot bear to leave her characters so crushed by the drama. It attempts to end on a lovely note of reconciliation, and it is a testament to the strength of Zadie and Emma’s friendship, but it feels oddly imbalanced with the sheer weight of what transgressed. The novel could have benefited from a more developed denouement.

Although it does have its flaws, the beautifully rendered characters and compelling, rhythmic storyline make “The Queen of Hearts” a thrilling read, and a fascinating look into the medical world. It’s an impressive debut, full of warmth and excitement.

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