Old Heart by Peter Ferry

A sweet, tender story of a decades-old, dreamed-of romance and the less elegant realities of aging.

old heart

Peter Ferry (Travel Writing) crafts a wise and delicate novel of aging, love and autonomy in Old Heart.

Tom Johnson is an old man. He has been widowed, and thereby freed from a troubled marriage, for a number of years. His adult children have begun pressuring him to sell the house in Illinois and move into a home. The motives of his son the gambling addict are suspicious; his daughter’s are likely pure. His eldest child, who had Down syndrome, was Tom’s best friend, but his death has given Tom the opportunity to pursue an old mystery. And so Tom plots to run away, leaving no clues behind save a note for his family: “I am not coming back.” He then travels to the Netherlands to track down a Dutch woman he knew during World War II, with whom he had “invented love.” He knows the chances of finding Sarah alive are poor, but he is driven nonetheless. “This is my life, whatever is left of it,” he writes in the note to his children.

The half-hidden narrator of Old Heart is Tom’s granddaughter Nora, a graduate student who had just begun recording the story of Tom’s return from the war and the beginning of his long-lived but unhappy marriage. When Tom makes his escape, Nora is the only one he takes into his confidence, and she relates parts of his story from her perspective. In other chapters, he chronicles his personal history–the parts where he meets and loves Sarah–in long letters to Nora. Throughout, the question of Tom’s mental competence looms over his narrative.

Of course, upon his arrival in the town where he knew Sarah, Tom does not find what he hoped he would; what he finds instead is far more complicated. In the winding path he travels–from Illinois to Eindhoven, and from dream to reality–Tom instead learns a lot about what he wants, what he has the right to expect from his life and where he’s come from. And despite his age, he continues to grow, and finds a chance to love.

Old Heart is earnest and, yes, occasionally sentimental, but also pensive and eventually enlightened. It is at once a romance, a meditation on the complications of end-of-life independence and the responsibilities of family, and a lovely personal history. In a slim, unassuming read, Ferry opens intriguing questions and introduces his reader to complex and deeply likable characters. The result is delightfully warm and universally appealing.

This review originally ran in the June 4, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 decisions.

One Response

  1. […] Old Heart, Peter Ferry – fiction. Brief, sweet, feeling novel of old age and end-of-life autonomy with impulses toward romance, but not an idealized version. […]

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