The McConnells are the poster family for dysfunctional communication skills. Everyone would rather be tortured than have a conversation about anything remotely confrontational, and this causes them to find themselves in pretty deep water by the end of the book. James, a beacon of verbosity in this barren landscape of conflict-avoiders, is the only one who seems willing to address the issues of homosexuality, familial discord, and social awareness, which is why he is the natural person for Ellen to turn to when she finds herself confused about all of the above. My Heartbeat is all about her family's lack of desire to talk about things that are really important, and how their inability to do so can cause a whole lot of grief.
Because of his family situation, James has more reason to be antisocial and withdrawn than Link does.
The biggest difference between James and Link is that James talks to someone—his psychiatrist—about his problems, which is what makes him able to handle everything else.
My Heartbeat as all about family and what it means to be so connected to a small group of people whether you want to be or not. For James, family is about neglect, convenience, and resentment. For Link, his family becomes an oppressive force because conflict needs to be avoided at all costs and the issues he's grappling with are a sure way of causing strife. For Ellen, family is like a problem to be solved; she is seeking a way to understand what makes her mom, dad, and older brother think and act the way that they do.
Instead of being a source of comfort, Link's family has become an oppressive fish bowl of judgment and expectations.
Link would have been happier if he had a family like James's—you know, one that's not around.
Freymann-Weyr didn't set out to write the definitive tome on coming-of-age while struggling with the questions of sexual identity, but in My Heartbeat, she certainly did a great job of capturing the confusion, anger, and despair that accompanies the process. The McConnell family struggles to come to terms with their changing perceptions about Link and what it means to be gay, and our story becomes a character study about how each family member deals with the information they've been given.
James isn't afraid of being gay because his parents aren't pressuring him about it either way.
Link is afraid of being gay because his father holds such strong opinions about what that would mean about his mind's heartbeat.
Ellen comes from a family that holds intellectualism in very high regard, so literature plays a pretty big role in how she interacts with them, especially when it comes to her father. He enjoys recommending classic novels to her, and then grilling her about what she thinks about them, and it becomes a way for them to communicate without talking about anything directly. It does make us wonder, though, why limit her pleasure reading to the classics? Can a girl get some YA lit once in a while? Maybe just as a palette cleanser? Not in My Heartbeat, she can't.
Dad's insistence on encouraging Ellen to read the classics (as opposed to more current bestsellers) is more about intellectual snobbery than developing her mind's heartbeat.
In her quest to understand what it means to be gay, Ellen discovers the existence of unwritten social rules regarding homosexuality. And as she does, Ellen ponders and evaluates the idea that whom you love can be taboo—and the ways in which society makes these decisions en masse and then enforces them without most people even noticing. As Ellen gradually comes to understand what it means to be marginalized in My Heartbeat, and how a society that claims to be intelligent and evolved can still act with prejudice, she applies her newfound awareness to the struggle plagues her older brother.
If society truly supported homosexuality, Ellen's dad would be totally onboard.
Even if society started unequivocally accepting homosexuality, Dad would still be against Link being gay.
Coming of age can mean different things for different people, and this is certainly true for James, Link, and Ellen as they navigate the choppy waters of adolescence in My Heartbeat. For Ellen it is a gradual progression of discovering herself, along with gaining a new awareness about the society in which she is growing up. For Link it is a battle of wits filled with hostility and distrust of authority figures. James, who seemingly handles everything with a graceful intelligence, coasts through the turbulent times with poise and calm acceptance. Regardless of their responses to various rites of passage, though, we can see that coming of age is no easy feat.
Some people come of age more gracefully than others simply because of their personalities and ability to cope with change.
In her quest to understand homosexuality, Ellen actually ends up discovering herself.
For much of My Heartbeat, Ellen is stuck in the middle of a complicated love triangle between herself, James, and the mercurial Link. A fourth side of the triangle (so wait, it's a love square?) is the added difficulty of Link's struggle with his sexual identity, and Ellen's desire to love him unconditionally, which makes her attempt to navigate their situation without permanent damage increasingly difficult. Questions about what love is and how to love someone best become a theme that permeates Ellen's desire to do the right thing for the two boys she adores.
Love can be a really confusing thing.
Love is never confusing—it is an absolute—it's everything else that is confusing.
The characters in My Heartbeat suffer not so much from physical isolation, but from a self-imposed emotional isolation. Ellen spends the majority of the novel trying to avoid any attention whatsoever from teachers, peers, and especially from her judgmental and intimidating father. Link goes a different route and punishes anyone who tries to get to know him too well, rewarding love with hostility or banishment. The fact that their isolation is self-imposed makes it seem unnecessary, and it can be painful to watch because so many of their problems could be solved by a simple heart-to-heart.
Link and Ellen find a sense of comfort in their isolation.
Link and Ellen seek isolation as a source of comfort, but if they had people to talk to about their issues, their problems wouldn't seem so bad.