The Heartbreaker (by Susan Howatch)

At last, the new novel by Susan Howatch, much awaited by her fans, was published in paperback! I re-read the entire series - Starbridge and St Benet's - in advance, to remind myself of the plots and people, before finally embarking on the new book.

'The Heartbreaker' is quite a shocking book. It's very different from the more staid Starbridge series about Church of England clergymen in the early and mid 20th centuries. There are some characters from earlier novels who appear in this, but the main protagonist is a newcomer: Gavin. Moreover, he's not a cook (like Alice from A Question of Integrity) or even a business expert (like Carter in The High Flyer). No, Gavin is - of all things - a male prostitute.

I didn't think I was going to like this book very much. I knew who Gavin was because I'm on a mailing list for people who enjoy Susan Howatch's books, and although I had avoided reading any spoiler discussions before I read 'The Heartbreaker', I couldn't help knowing the subject matter. I also knew that several people considered it a distinctly unpleasant story.

But I do like this author's writing, so I couldn't resist reading this, at least once.

The novel begins in the voice of Carta Graham, who was the main character in 'The High Flyer' (second book of the trilogy). She has suffered considerable trauma, and is currently taking a break from her career as a lawyer, working instead at the St Benet's healing centre as a fund-raiser. The book opens as she meets an old friend to discuss fund-raising strategy, and learns some unexpected secrets about his private life.

The next section is written from the perspective of Gavin, the 'heartbreaker' of the title. He seems a most unpleasant person to start with. He is convinced that everyone - male and female - will find him irresistibly attractive. He judges people almost entirely on their looks and sex appeal. It doesn't seem to occur to him that anyone could think beyond the bedroom, nor that anyone could find him unattractive in any way.

The book then continues, alternating these two first-person viewpoints. It's cleverly written with distinct styles for each (typical of Susan Howatch), showing the different viewpoints of events as the plot unfolds.

I have to say, though, I wasn't very impressed with the first part of the book. If it had been any other author, I would probably have given up about a third of the way through.

But as the plot develops, we slowly learn more about Gavin. He has terrible self-esteem, and a deep fear of his employer and her friends. It seems at first as if he could easily escape - and yet the ties that bind him to his job are far deeper than we first realise. One of this author's gifts is the ability to make the reader sympathetic to even the most unlikeable of people.

On the negative side, there's a lot of sleaze. Although the sex isn't explicit, it's referred to frequently with sufficient hints that my stomach turned a few times at some of the things he was expected to do. I wondered why it was necessary to show quite so many incidents; however, by the time I finished the book I thought it probably was the right amount. If anything, it was probably down-played on reality.

Inevitably Gavin eventually makes a bid for freedom under traumatic circumstances, making the book suspenseful and very exciting in places. I'm not one for thrillers in general - Agatha Christie is about my limit - but this managed to sustain my interest increasingly, without keeping me awake half the night with bad dreams. The suspense never lasted too long, and some real horrors that were uncovered were fairly lightly touched upon.

There's a good vs evil thread, and perhaps a more overt Christian message than is found in the other books in this trilogy. Not all the 'good' guys are Christians - or indeed heterosexuals - and there are some very shady characters with church backgrounds. The clergymen at St Benet's offer healing to everyone, freedom from whatever binds them, and a promise of help at whatever level is required. Integrity is one of the main values of the St Benet's centre: whatever one might think of prostitution, it's clear that Gavin's personality is so fragmented, and his lifestyle so distasteful to him, that he isn't free to be himself at any level.

It's a strong book with a lot to think about, and I'll probably read it again in a few years, but I wouldn't recommend it unreservedly. My stomach isn't particularly strong, and I coped with not just the sex references (mostly homosexual) but some clear hints of worse. All credit to Susan Howatch for keeping me reading!

If you enjoy thrillers, or are interested - for whatever reason - in either Christian healing or prostitution, then this book is well worth reading. It's extremely well-written. It can be read as a stand-alone novel, but in my view is best read as the third of the trilogy.

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