Maria Padian’s “How to Build a Heart” starts off as a fairly standard young adult romance: Girl falls for Best Friend’s Big Crush. It hits all the familiar tropes. She’s a Nerd, her friend’s a Badass, the crush is a Handsome Athlete. But halfway through, the story shifts gears and becomes something much deeper, broader and more moving. It becomes a story of finding one’s moral compass in an uncertain world filled with bigotry and bias.

Cover courtesy of Algonquin Young Readers

Isabella Crawford is the daughter of a Marine who was killed in Iraq. Her Puerto Rican mother Rita has uprooted the family time and again as she struggles to support them. Abandoning the father’s family and home state of North Carolina, they have ended up in a trailer park (“lovely Meadow Gardens,” as Izzy unfailingly refers to it) in Clayton, Virginia. Izzy, 16, is a scholarship student at her new school, a Catholic girls’ school, awkward, nerdy and still finding her feet, socially.

In the first part of the book the tension stems mostly from Izzy’s shame at being poor and the elaborate lengths she goes to to conceal her background from her new school friends. She doesn’t have to dissemble in front of her BFF Roz, because Roz lives in the same trailer park, with her dysfunctional mother and dangerously alcoholic boyfriend. Roz attends the local public high school (occasionally), and when she develops a secret crush on Sam, the BMOC at yet another school — this one in a tony Clayton suburb — Padian is able to play off all the social anxieties against each other: the “good” Catholic school dork, the super-popular suburban jock, the public school rebel, and Sam’s current girlfriend, the evil Melissa. Things get complicated when Sam’s needy little sister Aubrey, newly transferred to the Catholic school, develops an older-girl-crush on Izzy.

So, to recap: Aubrey loves Izzy, Izzy loves Roz, Roz loves Sam, Sam loves Melissa. Now toss a grenade into the middle of this highly fraught fivesome: Sam falls for Izzy, the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks (and vice versa). The result is teenage angst cranked up to 11: tears, lies, secrets, betrayals, and many many text messages.

But just when you think Padian has fallen into some sort of cliché quagmire, she surprises you. Habitat for the Humanities gives Izzy’s family a way out of the “lovely” trailer park by offering to build them a house in Sam’s upscale neighborhood. Padian avoids the easy and obvious: having Sam’s “perfect” family object. Instead, it is their friends and neighbors who don’t want Izzy’s family ruining property values and Sam’s family who defends them. And Sam’s family turns out to be far from perfect, having failed to protect Aubrey from being bullied to the point of becoming suicidal at her old school.

When the whole Crawford family is required to help build the Habitat house, including participating in the fundraising in a way Izzy finds humiliating (she objects to them using her story as “poverty porn”) she runs away to North Carolina to try to reconnect with and enlist her father’s family. Izzy had been too young to be aware of the undercurrent of bigotry in her father’s family when she first left North Carolina. So it is not until this moment that she — and Padian — really begin to expose the family rift for what it is, and to explore the quandary of every mixed-race child: Who are you? And where do you “belong”? Padian, a resident of Brunswick and herself the product of an Irish father and a Latina mother, deals with this painful subject honestly but gently, with insight, authority and often humor. This is not a polemic about racism but an exploration of what the very word identity means.

In telling Izzy’s story, Padian has also created some memorable minor characters and moments: Betts, the hard-as-the-nails-she-pounds Habitat project manager; an endearing little brother, as perfect a portrait of a hyperactive six-year-old as I’ve ever read. Padian’s deep dive into Habitat and how it works is also a fascinating side note.

Padian’s writing is a little labored at times, with an over-abundance of simile, as when she describes a facial expression: “Like the item she’d ordered from Amazon finally arrived and wasn’t quite what she expected. Her mouth twists, like she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s sucking on a hard candy.” Some plot twists feel contrived or predictable. But I’m happy to admit that the force of Padian’s storytelling, the pain of watching Izzy’s worlds collide, moved me to tears more than once.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s book author. She lives in Falmouth and may be reached at [email protected]


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