Why we love it: Toni Jordan’s latest Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is a hilarious bedroom farce interwoven with serious threads that will strike a chord with many.
This fast-paced, screwball comedy takes place at the home of Caroline and Henry in semi-rural suburbia. Caroline’s sister Janice is trying to help out as Caroline’s marriage falls apart. Janice is from the city, single and childless, a microbiologist used to looking after only her beloved bacteria, when she is suddenly thrown into the chaos of her sister’s crumbling marriage.
Caroline’s husband Henry is about to walk out on the marriage to take up with Martha, their children’s primary school teacher. When Henry and the youthful Martha fly off to Noosa together, Caroline makes off in hot pursuit to save her marriage, leaving Janice to look after the children, astute Mercedes and the youngest, Paris, who is coping with it all by refusing to speak.
While Janice tries to cope herself, she has to deal with Caroline’s smug, uber-healthy neighbours Craig and Lesley who, behind the façade of their lovey dovey marriage, are dealing with their own serious relationship issues and won’t leave Janice alone. When Craig gets into Janice’s bed thinking she is her sister Caroline, Janice is aghast. As if that weren’t enough, Janice’s ex Alec, who she’s never come to terms with parting from, arrives at the house unexpectedly.
While the action takes place over one weekend, Janice’s reveals her past, with the children’s predicament dredging up the painful memories of her own childhood and her father leaving for another woman, and all the subsequent heartache for Janice and Caroline. And then there’s the breakdown of her marriage to Alec and the very serious reason she ended it, that until this weekend she has revealed to no one, not even Alec. Now she does so in a spectacularly dramatic outburst.
Our Tiny Useless Hearts is a hilarious, riotous book and yet Jordan occasionally jolts us into reality as we’re drawn into the serious issues facing each of the characters. While some of them, like Craig and Lesley are laughable caricatures, Janice and Alec elicit our sympathy with the heartbreaking reason that Janice left Alex, which she is only now facing up to. And there’s Jordan’s portrayal of the children, Mercedes and Paris, who are confused by the crazy behaviour of the adults around them.
Toni Jordan is one of a handful of Australian writers who, like Liane Moriarty, can make us laugh and cry on the same page. “I think screwball bedroom farce is my natural default,” she says in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article. “I have trouble taking much of the world seriously, actually. I see the absurd everywhere andwhenever I see someone being cool and serious, I always think we’re all like children walking around in our parents’ clothes, pretending to be grown up.”
Before becoming a writer, Toni Jordan worked as a molecular biologist, like Janice, and she’s also been a saleswoman, marketing manager, shop assistant and copywriter. We’re so grateful she made the career change, because since then she’s written four novels. Her debut novel Addition (2008), was an international bestseller, a Richard and Judy Bookclub pick and longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Fall Girl was published internationally and has been optioned for film, and Nine Days, a historical novel, was awarded Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards and shortlisted for the ABIA Best General Fiction award.
(Author photos thanks to Text Publishing, photo credit to James Penlidis)