Being raised in a family of readers, I was quick to absorb every book my parents put in my hands. By fourth grade, I was filching my parents’ books off nightstands, coffee tables, and deliberately high shelves. I still remember the look of terror on my dad’s face when he discovered his eleven-year-old daughter reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth at two in the morning. Needless to say, my parents and I had a chat about “age-appropriate books.”
While I have moved past the times of censored library privileges, my parents and I still don’t always agree on books. We agreed to disagree on Station Eleven, The Goldfinch, and A Little Life for the sake of familial peace. With Jan-Philipp Sendker’s debut novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, though, there is no debate. It is unanimously one of the best books we have ever had the immense pleasure of reading.
Part love story, part mystery, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a poignant and affecting tale that traverses both decades and continents. Four years after her father, Tin Win, inexplicably disappears, Julia discovers old love letters he wrote to a mysterious woman by the name of Mi Mi. Propelled by a desperate, insatiable need to understand why her father disappeared, Julia leaves New York for the small village of Kalaw to find the woman from the letter and to find answers to her father’s puzzling past.
And that’s just the beginning. Upon her arrival in Burma, an elderly man named U Ba approaches Julia in a teahouse and tells her that he knows her, that he has been waiting for her. Despite her obvious skepticism, Julia agrees to meet U Ba the next day to hear the story he promises. Sendker masterfully transports readers back decades, recounting Tin Win’s difficult childhood: cursed by an astrologer, abandoned by his mother, blinded from waiting outside for his mother’s improbable return.
Alone and destitute, Tin Win was placed in a local monastery by a kindly neighbor, where he began to recover, even thrive. At the monastery, he met a woman named Mi Mi, who was as much an outsider as he was. Mi Mi sold potatoes at the market, but a crippling disease forced her to crawl instead of walk. The ensuing love story is passionate and endearing, but ultimately brief. As U Ba and Julia continue to meet day after day to finish the story, Julia realizes she knows so little about her father and struggles to reconcile the different accounts of him.
The outlandishness of this love story is remarkably convincing and utterly captivating. The foreign setting and unfamiliar culture felt unexpectedly natural and oddly familiar. I would stop reading and then feel out of place because I was so deeply immersed in Sendker’s world. Lyrical, prosaic, elegant, and enchanting, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a story you don’t want to miss. It will easily break your heart and just as easily mend it. I cannot champion this book enough and I truly envy you the experience of reading it for the first time.
Taylor Noel works in the publicity department at Scribner.