How to Build a Heart, author Maria Padian’s follow-up to Wrecked, explores the life of Izzy Crawford, a teen who seems to have it all—until the carefully separated sides of her life begin to overlap, forcing her to confront not only her fears about the judgments of others, but her own difficult feelings about identity, class, and family.
Torn between two cultures, two social classes, and two identities, 16-year-old Izzy Crawford is desperate to find the place, friends, and version of herself that feels most like home. Her Southern-born father—raised on a hog farm with lots of family and plenty of glasses of sweet tea—was killed in service in Iraq six years ago, and ever since then, Izzy and her Puerto Rican mother, Margarita, and her little brother, Jack, have moved around a lot. As a single mother trying to make ends meet while securing the best educations and opportunities for her children, Margarita has finally settled into a mobile home park in Virginia. For the first time, Izzy has a best friend named Roz, access to a tremendous education at a local private school, and even a newfound love of singing with her school’s choir, Veronic Convergence.
However, as much as Izzy enjoys her fancy school and her fellow Veronic Convergence girls, she is careful to keep her status as a scholarship student hidden from everyone around her—this includes pretending that she has a cell phone plan with unlimited data, pretending her mother, who works as a nurse’s aide, is actually a doctor, and pulling off some pretty impressive fake drop-offs at a home near—but not inside—her mobile home park. You would think things would be easier at home, but even in the comfort of her own home, Izzy has to be careful about what details she shares with Roz about school. Though she’s fun and supportive in her own way, Roz is deeply sensitive about her upbringing, deeply resentful towards her pubic school classmates, and openly jealous of Izzy’s school friends. But when a new girl, Aubrey, joins Veronic Convergence, and latches on to Izzy as her BFF, Izzy meets Sam, Aubrey’s handsome and athletic older brother—and Roz’s mortal enemy at her own school.
With the disparate sides of her life beginning to overlap, Izzy is thrown into overdrive trying to protect the identities she has cultivated in order to fit into both her school and her home. Then her Mami announces something as wonderful as it is terrifying: their family has been selected to build a new home for themselves through Habitat for Humanity. With the support of the community, Izzy and her family will move to the ritzy side of town, where she’ll be neighbors with her classmates and people like Aubrey and Sam—and the whole community will know that she and her family do not come from the same privileged background as the people around them. As grateful and excited as Izzy is to finally put down some real roots, she is horrified at the prospect of parading around for her wealthy neighbors for fundraising and sharing her sob story like some sort of “poverty porn.” Even worse, her relationship with Aubrey’s brother, Sam, has turned into something more than a friendship, and now she will have to admit that she has been lying to him. Add to that Roz’s growing resentment and you have the recipe for one heck of an identity crisis. As Izzy’s balancing act becomes more and more overwhelming and the reality that the truth is going to come out one way or another becomes more and more clear; Izzy will have to decide for herself what makes her story hers, which parts of her life are worth fighting for, and which ones she must take a stand against.
Maria Padian is, first and foremost, a tremendously talented writer. Even in the exposition, How to Build a Heart managed to suck me in entirely—Izzy’s position is expressed clearly, but not gratuitously. Without heaping on the tragedy or clichés, Padian manages to immerse her readers right into her main character’s mind. Beyond her own quirks and personality traits, Izzy’s shame and guilt at not fighting into either of her parent’s cultures is immediately gripping, but never overly wrought nor voyeuristic. Bolstered by her terrific writing, Padian’s characters are among the most fleshed out I have ever read in any book—even the side characters have their own distinct motivations, backgrounds and ambitions. From Izzy’s family members to her classmates, boyfriend, and even the Habitat for Humanity volunteers, every character has been fully explored and each of them is necessary for the plot. Readers who like to write will learn so much from Padian’s careful plotting here; on every page it is obvious that you are watching a master at work.
Of course, one cannot discuss How to Build a Heart without discussing the strong themes of racism, social class, poverty and even mental illness that Padian has woven into her narrative so seamlessly. With the call for diverse books at an all-time high, I love that Padian is giving us a main character torn between two cultures and fitting into neither—a deeply relatable topic, especially for first-generation children of immigrants. Through years of putting up a façade about the realities of her life, Izzy has lost herself, and a huge part of How to Build a Heart is about her coming to terms with her situation—good or bad—and learning to love the Izzy in between it all. She is extremely easy to empathize with, and I strongly believe that readers from all backgrounds will learn something from her story of growing up between cultures while wanting to connect with and build her own roots.
Complex, heartrending, and beautifully explored, How to Build a Heart is a deeply poignant read that is not only deep enough to move you, but wonderfully engaging and quirky. Readers of Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, The Education of Margot Sanchez, and Picture Us in the Light will adore Izzy Crawford and her delightful community.