Study Guide

My Heartbeat Themes

  • Communication

    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.

    Questions About Communication

    1. Why is everyone so afraid to talk to each other? No, really—pick a few pairs of people and unpack just what keeps them from communicating freely.
    2. How would this book have been different if all the problems were out in the open?
    3. Does Mom purposefully avoid confronting Link, or is she just too distracted with her work?
    4. Is Ellen right to assume that Link won't talk to her about his problems?

    Chew on This

    Because of his family situation, James has more reason to be antisocial and withdrawn than Link does.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.

  • Family

    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.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does Mrs. McConnell call their family dinner hour "sacred"? Why does it get harder to do as the school year progresses? How does this affect the family? How about the individual members?
    2. Why isn't James angrier about the hand he's been dealt in regards to family? What gives Link the right to be so angry?
    3. What do you think Freymann-Weyr is trying to say about families? Is there an overarching moral to our story? If so, what is it? If not, what affect does this have?
    4. How would this story have been different if it had focused on the character development of their friends rather than family? Would it have been different?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Sexual Identity

    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.

    Questions About Sexual Identity

    1. Is James gay? Is he bisexual? Is it at all important to him to have a label for how he feels? Why or why not?
    2. Could Link be straight but just struggling with the idea of having a gay best friend? Or is his anger a result of him repressing the truth about his own sexuality? Back your answer up with evidence from the book.
    3. Why does Ellen have such a hard time finding any answers about being gay from the books she reads?
    4. How do Ellen's parents differ in their approaches to the question about Link's sexual identity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Literature

    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.

    Questions About Literature

    1. Is Ellen onto something when she compares her love triangle situation to that of the one in The Age of Innocence? How are they alike, and how are they different?
    2. Why does her dad encourage her to read the books that he does? What is his motivation?
    3. How do their reading styles further characterize James and Link? What about Ellen's literary preferences?
    4. Why do you think Dad is reading that impossible German book?

    Chew on This

    Ellen was right to say that The Crucible, even though it was written as a protest of McCarthyism, can be applied to just about any persecuted group's struggle for legitimacy.

    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.

  • Society

    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.

    Questions About Society

    1. Which bothers Ellen more, the fact that society creates unwritten laws about homosexuality, or the fact that her dad adheres to them?
    2. How does the society in which Ellen is raised impact her awareness? Would she be more or less aware of social taboos if she lives someplace else?
    3. Why does Ellen have such a hard time understanding social cues? Does she develop more social awareness as the story progresses?

    Chew on This

    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

    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.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. What are the different rites of passage that we see Ellen experience? Are they universal or particular to a time and place? A mix of the two perhaps?
    2. How does Ellen feel about growing up? What is her attitude toward her increasing independence and the changes in her family? What does this reveal about Ellen?
    3. Is the fact that they are getting older the only reason why Link is emotionally pulling away from Ellen?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Love

    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.

    Questions About Love

    1. Is Link disturbed by the fact that he loves James, or is it the prospect of sexual attraction that bothers him?
    2. What are some of the ways that Ellen shows Link how much she loves him?
    3. Compare and contrast the ways that Mom and Dad show their love for Link. How about for Ellen? What patterns do you notice across the siblings?

    Chew on This

    Love can be a really confusing thing.

    Love is never confusing—it is an absolute—it's everything else that is confusing.

  • Isolation

    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.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why is Ellen so afraid of attention?
    2. Why does Link "banish" anyone who tries to get to know him? Why are his defenses so high?
    3. How is James's isolation different from Link and Ellen's?
    4. What role does communication play in characters' isolation? Do you notice any patterns?

    Chew on This

    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.