Often, I read about a book and immediately request the book from the library. If it takes some time for the book to become available, I sometimes forget why I found the description so intriguing. That is not the case with The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman.
The title could fool one into thinking the book is a romance. It is not. It is a story of loss, love, and reclamation.
When the story opens in 1964, Tom Hope is married to Trudy. Tom is happy and unaware of Trudy’s growing discontent that finally manifests itself in her disappearing from their farm home in central Victoria, Australia. The nearby town is Hometown. Tom begins making a list of all the things he can do to prove to Trudy that he loves her and will make her life better when she returns. He feels certain she will return.
On his list, he writes picnics, pets cat budgie!!, light fire kitchen first thing!!, and tell her about good things she does like when she doesn’t burn the sausages. As he thinks of more and more ways to improve himself for Trudy, he writes them down. Soon, the list is six notebook pages long.
Meanwhile, Tom must see to the work on the farm. He has a flock of sheep, milk cows, and an apple orchard. On a farm, the farmer gets up early and works hard all day. Clearly, farm wife is not the job that Trudy found fulfilling.
Then one day in a pouring rain, Trudy is back. Tom feels overjoyed. He treats her tenderly and is prepared to sleep on the couch to let her have her space, but she wants him to sleep with her. Tom even shows her his six pages of ways he plans to improve to show her how much he loves her.
The next morning, though, Trudy drops a bombshell: she is pregnant with another man’s child. After processing the news, Tom says it does not matter and that he will be the baby’s father. Trudy agrees to stay, but she continues to be moody and depressed throughout the pregnancy. When the baby boy is born, Tom and Trudy name him Peter. Trudy exhibits no maternal feelings and rarely wishes to hold Peter.
Tom becomes the primary caretaker and Peter quickly learns to turn to Tom when he needs something, even from early infancy. That bond continues to grow. When Peter is three, Trudy tells Tom that she must go; she cannot live buried on a farm, so off she goes, leaving Peter with Tom.
Then three years later, Trudy returns to take Peter away. Both Tom and Peter are heartbroken, but Trudy is the boy’s mother and Tom has no hold since he is not the child’s biological father. Tom has worked out a good arrangement of taking care of Peter when still getting all the farm chores done and keeping Peter safe. The two develop a deep bond of love.
Trudy tells Tom she has found Jesus and that now Peter must be with her. Just how much loss can Tom withstand? And, of course, Peter, too, suffers from being taken from Tom. Trudy may love Peter, but she has hitherto not shown him any affection, much less motherly love.
Again, Tom finds himself alone. Then one day when he returns home from working, he discovers two notes, one under the front door and one under the back door. The notes are the same and they are from Hannah Babel, a Hungarian Jew who has moved to Australia to create a new life for herself by giving music lessons and by opening a bookshop in Hometown.
Hannah needs Tom’s help in welding a sign over the bookshop she is opening in Hometown. Tom has seen Hannah in Hometown, but he has not spoken with her. He goes to the bookshop and agrees to fix the sign and even agrees to build some additional bookshelves for the store.
Hannah is unlike anyone else that Tom has ever met; at forty-five, she is ten years older than he. Still, both feel an attraction between them. As Tom continues to help Hannah ready the bookshop for opening, their relationship deepens and they are spending nights together.
Sometimes, though, Hannah withdraws, not physically, but emotionally, leaving Tom baffled about what he might have done or how he might help her return to herself. Readers begin receiving the back story when chapters shift from the present to 1944 and learn that Hannah along with her husband Leon and their young son Michael have been swept up in the Nazi’s relocation plan for Jewish people.
The little family ends up at Auschwitz where Hannah and Michael are separated from Leon. In a split second when she dozes on standing on her feet, Hannah loses Michael as well. From then on, she feels haunted by her losses. Readers continue to learn more and more about the struggle Hannah has in Auschwitz and later when the Germans abandon camp ahead of the Russian soldiers’ arrival.
Hannah, a natural leader, takes eighty women who have survived thus far and they strike out to find safety and food, for they are starving. Along the way, many of the women die. In the end, only three of them survive.
When Hannah and Tom marry, all of Hometown comes to the wedding. The other women of the town cook food for the reception and Tom’s two sisters come to help.
The bookshop is in Hometown and Hannah still gives music lessons as well, but she and Tom live on the farm. Hannah still experiences those unexpected periods of depression when she withdraws from Tom. Given his experience with Trudy, Tom becomes wary at those times and struggles to know what to do to keep Hannah safe.
Peter runs away from the Jesus camp and finds his way back to Tom. Unfortunately, Tom feels he must return Peter to Trudy at the camp, so he does. Tom and Peter both wish life could be otherwise. Now, though, thrown into the mix is Hannah who does not want Peter to live with her and Tom. The loss of her own Michael is too great for her to bear.
Of course, Tom and Hannah must encounter a number of other challenges. Running a bookshop in a small, rural town is not easy. Obviously, a farm requires constant care, too.
How will the story turn out? Does Hannah overcome her nightmares? Can Peter come back to the farm to live with Tom, the only father he has known? If he does, what will happen to Trudy? And should readers care about her?
The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is an engaging novel and provides a moving story. I read it all in one day.
Read more about Robert Hillman and his work at this link: https://www.roberthillmanauthor.com/.