Study Guide

My Heartbeat Analysis

  • Tone

    Serious, Careful, Curious

    Freymann-Weyr does a solid job of creating a voice for Ellen that matches her description to a tee. Ellen isn't necessarily a vivacious or loquacious narrator. No, she's quiet, and introverted, and deeply introspective. James describes her as "curious, careful, kind, and intense," and we think that matches the tone of the book perfectly:

    I have, of course, missed learning about these particular laws in my reading. No one writes them down because that would involve admitting they exist. Everyone has to learn what they are and how to cope with them in their own way. The unwritten social laws about gay people might be ones that Dad, despite being smart and someone I know, obeys. And he probably wants us to obey them as well. The way he wants us to obey his laws about our minds and their heartbeats. (7.63)

    It's almost like you can watch the gears turning in her head as she puzzles over this new information. She takes it all in, processes it, and logs it away for further introspection. By creating such an authentic voice for Ellen, Freymann-Weyr has crafted a fitting tone for her book as well.

  • Genre

    Family Drama; Young Adult Literature; Coming of Age

    Family Drama

    This story focuses on the McConnell family and the conflicts that arise when Link's sexuality is questioned. There is a lot of angst about parental judgment, expectations and familial ambition, and a little bit of sibling rivalry just for kicks.

    Young Adult Literature

    Shmoopers like to define YA Lit as any literature that is geared toward young adults, but we wouldn't ever want to restrict a book to just that audience. People of any age can enjoy My Heartbeat, but the author definitely intended it to be enjoyed by a younger age set. We can tell by the simple language Freymann-Weyr uses to convey complex ideas, the themes of the novel, and the teenagers hanging out at center stage in the plot.

    Coming of Age

    Coming of age books are all about the struggles of young adults as they try to understand their newfound sense of maturity, sexuality, and independence. Ellen is doing exactly this as she tries to comprehend Link's possible homosexuality, James's bisexuality, her own burgeoning sexuality, and who she really is and how she fits in and what she likes and who she likes and… man, coming of age is exhausting

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Ellen and Link's Dad has a saying that he's been repeating to them since they were little kids:

    Geeky is one of Dad's favorite words, and I listen with glee to my brother's imitation of our father: "Geeky people often have that which is most valuable in this life." Link pauses here for effect, so that James and I can join in, shouting Dad's favorite phrase, "A mind with its own heartbeat!"
    (2.16)

    He's trying to tell them, in his typically opaque way, that individuality and intellectual prowess are things that are highly valued. What's more interesting, though, is that his idea of individuality doesn't encompass all the different ways people can be different. His protestations over Link's possible gayness make him a bit of a hypocrite, do they not?

    Either way, My Heartbeat is a very appropriate title because the story explores all the different ways Ellen, Link, and even James are struggling to establish what their mind's own heartbeat really means.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Sometimes you get to the end of a book and you find yourself disappointed. Maybe there isn't enough closure, maybe your favorite character dies, or maybe it's too neat and tidy and saccharine. That's not the case with My Heartbeat. Nope, we think Freymann-Weyr found a wonderful way for us to say goodbye to Ellen and her curious mind.

    We close our story as Ellen leaves James's house, virginity recently lost, and she's taking a walk through Central Park to get home. He gave her taxi money (ever the protective type), but Ellen figures:

    I intend to go home the way I arrived in October: walking through the park. If I am alone, without my brother's company, then, really, that is how it should be. (20.55)

    This puts a nice little cap on everything, doesn't it? It shows how everything has changed since we were introduced to Ellen on the eve of her fourteenth birthday. She has gained independence and a sense of self-identity that the girl from the beginning of the book would have balked at.

    So she's walking through the park and contemplating what her future holds in store for her. And for once she's not worried or anxious, and instead she's confident and—dare we say it—glowing:

    I see her in her hideous green skirt, acting as if her mind isn't beating with what her body knows. Although I'm still in the process of meeting her, I've already decided to like her.

    Not because she's curious, careful, kind, and intense. But because she's let somebody else discover that about her and love her for it. (20.58-59)

    Considering Ellen is the type of girl who likes books with imperfect endings, this is right for her. When you look at it at face value, she's losing the love of her life to a distance too vast to overcome, her brother still lashes out in a hostile manner at everyone and everything, and she's recently discovered the fallibility of her parents. It's not like everything is hunky dory—she doesn't even like the clothes she's wearing. And yet she's triumphantly walking through the park, secure in her self-worth and happy for the future to come.

    Yup, we like this ending. But more importantly, we think Ellen would, too.

  • Setting

    New York City, Early 2000s

    A Look Back

    In "A Look Back," written ten years after the publication of My Heartbeat, Garret Freymann-Weyr discusses how changing the setting of her initial idea helped to flesh out the story:

    I wrote My Heartbeat ten years ago because of an image I had then of two boys on a dusty country road having a fistfight. One of them broke the other one's nose, and blood went everywhere. I had no idea what the fight was about, but it seemed to me that the boys were, in spite of the blood, very close. […]

    So, in a fit of desperation, I moved the three of them to the courtyard of a small private school, reasoning that I knew nothing about street fighting but a lot about small private schools.

    And it turns out that location can indeed be the missing part of a puzzle. Suddenly, I knew their names. James broke Link's nose and Ellen, up on a fire escape, watched. Blood was everywhere as it always was in that scene, but I now had real information. James and Link loved each other very much, and that love was upsetting to them both. Ellen had a crush on James and adored her older brother. She was as confused as I was about the fighting, the blood, and the broken nose.

    They always say, "write what you know," right? So instead of writing about a dusty, rural road and a scuff-up between two boys in well-worn overalls, which may have come off as inauthentic from the native New Yorker, she wrote about two young men, navigating a sophisticated conflict.

    Sex in The City

    One of the central themes of the book is the quest to understand homosexuality and all of the unwritten rules and fears that surround it. The setting plays a pretty important role in how this quest plays out because being gay in one of the most diverse cities in the world is pretty different than navigating homosexuality somewhere else.

    If Freymann-Weyr had decided to set the story in a small, rural town, or some place with a reputation for being less tolerant toward people who are different, My Heartbeat would have had a much more oppressive feel to it. New York City, on the other hand, has a reputation for valuing individuality and whatever forms it takes—and if you don't like it you can go to New Jersey. So by setting our story in the Big Apple, Freymann-Weyr is removing any external conflicts for our characters. Link isn't facing any hostility, danger, or reproach from a repressive social network. As Ellen (naively) says:

    Now it's not a big deal. There's AIDS to worry about or getting attacked by a redneck, but that's about it. Only people who don't know better still think it's shameful or wrong to be gay, but not people we know. (7.7)

    This has the interesting effect of making Link's struggle with his possible homosexuality totally internal. Sure, his dad has quite the influence on his ability to come out (if he wanted to), but for the most part the anger and shame that he experiences is all self-inflicted. James, on the other hand, is pretty casual about his sexual orientation—because he can be. All of those things would have been very different had Freymann-Weyr set the story somewhere else. Cool, huh?

    Early Aughts

    The setting of a story isn't just about its physical location, though; the time in which it is set can play a huge role, too. My Heartbeat represented contemporary New York City when it was written in 2002. Cell phones were still considered a luxury item, VHS hadn't quite gone the way of the Dodo, and the gay rights movement, particularly the marriage quality fight, hadn't yet picked up momentum in the mainstream. As Freymann-Weyr notes in "A Look Back," (the post-script to the 2012 printing):

    A lot has changed in the last ten years about what is true for people (and characters) who are gay. Those changes are legal and, to a certain extent, social. But the unwritten laws that must be navigated by Link as he strives to know his heart without disappointing his father are still very much in effect.

    Today, someone like Ellen who was truly naïve regarding what it meant to be gay would be a total anomaly. In the age of the Internet and 24-hour news media, it would be pretty difficult to maintain that level of ignorance. However, her quest to fully understand what it means to be gay still holds a lot of truth, no matter when she exists.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    My Heartbeat isn't clogged up with difficult prose or words that are so multisyllabic you need to sound them out. It does, however, have some difficult themes to contend with, such as questioning one's sexual identity, familial discord, and navigating society's unwritten laws about being gay. So it isn't exactly a stroll along the beach.

  • Writing Style

    Frank, Concise, Informative

    The title of the book might lead you to think it'd be full of flowery language and verbose descriptions of wistful expressions of love, but you'd be pretty wrong. In fact, Freymann-Weyr is downright frugal when it comes to her writing style. She is carefully frank, consistently gets to the point, and casually informative, like a 1980s afterschool special on Lifetime. Check it out:

    People used to think that being gay was a mental illness, but doctors (especially psychiatrists) no longer believe that. Even if Mr. and Mrs. Wentworth aren't fit to be parents, I've never heard Mom call them stupid. I ask James if his parents know that reasonable people don't think being gay is a mental illness.

    "They do know," he says. "They send me so I can make my own choices without being influenced by their deep desire that I be straight." (7.47-48)

    Can't you just picture the soft lighting, calm orchestra music, and our helpfully enlightening characters oddly clothed in an all-pastel color palette? If you've never seen an old-school Lifetime special, hopefully you can still zero in on the fact that Freymann-Weyr manages to convey info clearly and concisely here, helping us understand that time period the book is set in as well as the characters' experiences.

  • A Mind With Its Own Heartbeat

    Taken literally, this phrase could be the stuff of nightmares. A pulsing brain, throbbing along independently of a body, like some kind of parasitic metronome… But thankfully, Ellen's dad uses this phrase as a metaphor to express the value of individuality:

    Geeky is one of Dad's favorite words, and I listen with glee to my brother's imitation of our father: "Geeky people often have that which is most valuable in this life." Link pauses here for effect, so that James and I can join in, shouting Dad's favorite phrase, "A mind with its own heartbeat!"
    (2.16)

    This appreciation for the person who marches to the beat of a different drummer is a running theme throughout My Heartbeat. (See that? It's even the title of the book). And it's not just about valuing differences; it's about knowing yourself well enough to understand what makes you different. You can't be true to yourself unless you firmly know who you are.

    Discovering her mind's own heartbeat becomes something of an obsession for Ellen, which isn't strange given her age and all the issues her family is confronting. Mostly, though, she doesn't want to disappoint her father, who holds this quality to be extremely important:

    The thing about Dad is that he makes you want and dread his attention at the same time. I like the fact that he's interested in my thoughts, but I'm always terrified of what he thinks about what I think. After all, I know he's judging whether or not my mind has any kind of a heartbeat yet. What can I safely say about what I thought? (3.21)

    It's a bit sad that she's more worried about her father judging her mind's heartbeat than just discovering what it is for herself, but she admires her dad so much that to disappoint him would be tantamount to failure.

    Here's where things go a bit sour, though: Ellen's dad, the paragon of intellectual prowess (according to him, at least), pays a lot of lip service to treasuring individuality, and yet does everything he can to repress his son's search for his sexual identity. That makes him a pretty big hypocrite, right? If Link's mind's heartbeat is telling him that he loves James, shouldn't he listen to it?

    And that right there, folks, is the crux of the issue. Sometimes even the most educated, well-meaning people can have prejudicial thoughts that override their good intentions. Even though their dad thinks he's been a vocal proponent of his kids finding themselves, he can't help but have deep-seated issues with homosexuality. Eradicating these preconceptions is part of what the gay rights movement is all about.

    Ultimately, Ellen finally realizes that she may never fully understand how her father's mind works:

    "What is this about?" I ask Dad one night, picking up volume two. It is so long I cannot imagine that there is an end that can be described as either happy or true.

    "A lost world," he says. "A life just out of reach."

    This is fitting, since I think his finishing it will remain forever out of reach. I would venture that its length and difficulty are why he is reading it in the first place. But of course I don't know if that is, in fact, true. Dad learned French, Latin, and Italian in college, but he taught himself German. Was it to read this book? Why not read a three-volume book in French? I leave the study. Suppose he answered all my questions. I still wouldn't discover what the quality is of his mind's heartbeat. Which is what I am really asking with my questions about his reading habits. (17.44)

    So, even though she can't quite get the measure of her dad's mind's heartbeat, (maybe because he doesn't know it, himself) Ellen ends the book knowing more about her own:

    It will be amazing in the way that girl walking through the park is. I see her in her hideous green skirt, acting as if her mind isn't beating with what her body knows. Although I'm still in the process of meeting her, I've already decided to like her.

    Not because she's curious, careful, kind and intense. But because she's let somebody else discover that about her and love her for it. (20.58-59)

    Looks like our main girl is learning how to walk to the beat of her own heart.

  • Ellen's "Interesting Qualities"

    Early on in their relationship, James draws a picture for Ellen, of Ellen, that includes all of her "interesting qualities." To some, this is just a sweet gesture, but for Ellen it is a symbol of his love for her.

    It happens shortly after Ellen asks James and Link whether they're a couple and Link storms out, giving Ellen a chance to at least get James's perspective on the whole is-he-or-isn't-he-gay thing:

    "Girls don't interest me compared with Link. But compared with Link, men don't interest me either. All in all, though, girls are… girls have interesting qualities."

    I am a girl. And I have my interesting qualities. I can't think of any, of course, but I must have some. (6.40-41)

    Even though she can't name her own interesting qualities (maybe we need to talk to Ellen about her self-esteem), this statement opens up a glimmer of hope that James could ever love her back. Then, after a few weeks of them spending a lot of time together, James gives her his drawing:

    He gives me the cardboard tube that has been sticking out of his bag all day. I pull a pencil drawing from the tube and smooth it on the table between us. It is of a girl dressed as a storybook princess. She's paused in a huge arched doorway, holding her skirt (as if it were in her way) while surveying the party going on in the ballroom before her. And it's some party: full of dancers, waiters, and people standing in groups. The princess is a dead ringer for me, and not because she's tall and skinny. My nose and mouth aren't exactly that shape, but her expression is one I see in the mirror every day.

    "How did you do that?" I ask. "She looks just like me."

    "Only a little like you," he says. "I had to cheat to get your qualities in it."

    Because of the way she's holding it, there are folds in her skirt, and instead of a line, James has woven a word into each fold. Curious, careful, kind, and intense.

    "You think I'm intense?"

    "It's your most interesting quality," he says.

    "I love this," I tell him. "My very own party."

    "This is the only drawing I've ever given away."

    I tell him it's going up on my wall.

    "It will be the first thing I see in the morning," I say, meaning: I love you. Thank you. You're wonderful. Perhaps he hears what I mean, for his smile looks like it's never hidden anywhere in its life.
    (8.83-93)

    James's drawing is chock-full of symbolism. For example, isn't it interesting that Ellen's "interesting qualities" are woven into her skirt, which she is holding as though it's in her way? Maybe Freymann-Weyr is trying to say that Ellen hides behind her most interesting qualities, or that she is so intense, and curious, and careful that she gets in her own way.

    Even Ellen's positioning is thought provoking: She is standing on the edge of the party, looking in as though she were an observer rather than a participant. All the partygoers are gathered in groups, and she's just standing in the doorway, watching. Sounds a bit like her real-life lunchtime habits, doesn't it? James is able to truly capture Ellen on paper because he sees her, and this drawing becomes tangible evidence of his ability to know and love her.

    The drawing resurfaces at the end of the book when Ellen insists that James take it with him to Germany:

    "I want you to take my picture to Germany," I say.

    "Of course," he says. "I must have a—what is it you say?—a bazillion photos of you."

    "No, the drawing," I say. "The one you did of me."

    "You're giving it back?"

    "I'm loaning it to you," I say. "I want you to remember that girls have interesting qualities."

    "I'm not likely to forget that," James says.

    "I want you to remember mine in particular," I say.

    "That's a given," he says. (20.40)

    We think there are two ways to interpret this request from Ellen. One is to infer that Ellen wants James to have a daily reminder of what he's giving up by going to school so far away; she wants him to be reminded of her most interesting qualities because she has hopes of reuniting again someday.

    On the other hand, it could be a gesture that she understands their relationship has come to a crucial juncture, and she has to let go. She's returning her best features to the person who discovered them, because she no longer needs that tangible evidence that they exist—she knows herself better now.

    So, knowing what you do about Ellen and the way that her character develops, which interpretation do you like better?

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central)

    My Heartbeat is written from Ellen's wide-eyed perspective, which lends the story a sweet, naïve incredulity that is hard not to like. Her observations on everything that is happening around her are expressed with a wondrous but frank attitude, giving us a pretty accurate idea of what it's like to be an intelligent fourteen year-old girl facing confusing circumstances:

    I want to ask why James's sleeping with men would annoy Link if, as Link says, he himself is not gay. But it's so clear while also being confusing. Link was mad about James and the waiter, but he couldn't say that flat-out without retreating from his position that he's not gay. My brother has really boxed himself into a corner here. (6.34)

    Although at times it can feel restrictive to not know what the other characters are thinking in such a character-driven story, it also lends a realistic touch; its not like we know what everyone else is thinking in real life, either.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition

      The Three Amigos

      For as long as she can remember, Ellen, James, and Link have been an inseparable trio. Link and James debate the qualities of foreign films and classic movies, and Ellen just loves watching them do their thing. It won't be a problem that she has a massive crush on James, right?

      Rising Action

      Love Triangles Are Tough

      To satisfy her overwhelming curiosity, Ellen asks Link and James if they are a couple, which leads to a nasty break-up and the end of their trio. Ellen and James start dating, so good for them, but Link's path continues to be one of open hostility and self-doubt. Meanwhile, Ellen embarks on a quest to understand what it means to be gay, but isn't finding much help from anyone. What's a girl to do?

      Climax

      I'll Show You, Exams

      Link turns in all of his final exams blank. Now his parents are forced to recognize that he's going through something, and they need to pay attention. Even though everything seems to be falling apart, Ellen's family is finally addressing some of the issues that have been left simmering under the surface for far too long.

      Falling Action

      Yale Fixes Everything

      Just when you think things couldn't get any worse, Link announces that he's gotten into Yale, which has been his father's fantasy for as long as anyone can remember. Somehow, this diffuses all of the awful tension that's been lingering in the McConnell house, and everything seems like it's going to start coming up roses.

      Resolution

      A Walk in the Park

      The last image we have of Ellen is as a girl in an ugly school uniform confidently walking through Central Park, having just lost her virginity to James and feeling truly happy about the young woman she is becoming. All of her problems haven't been resolved, but it feels like everything's going to be okay for Ellen, Link, and James. We can all close the book, release a long sigh, and move on with our lives.