In 1987 Novalee and Willy Jack are headed across the country where they’re sure Willy Jack’s cousin will get him a great job in California. Seven months pregnant, Novalee has to stop frequently to use the bathroom, much to the annoyance of Willy Jack, who is clearly a user and a loser. As they head toward a Wal-Mart in a tiny town, Novalee puts Willy Jack’s hand on her belly, telling him he can feel the heartbeat. “It’s where the heart is,” she says. She gets out of the car, heads into the store, and it’s then that Willy Jack ditches her.
The main plot point you get upon reading the synopsis of Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts is that Novalee ends up living in the Wal-Mart, and even giving birth there with the help of the local librarian, Forney. But that’s only the first bit. While she hangs around the Wal-Mart that first day, unsure of what to do because she’s seventeen, pregnant, and stranded in an unfamiliar state, with no parents or other family and little education, Novalee meets a variety of locals who take to her. Each gives her (I admit saccharine) advice and a physical (sometimes useless) gift. As the story progresses the gifts and wisdom function as a measurement of growth, charting where Novalee started in this town and the impact neighbors and friends have on her and her daughter over the next seven years.
The thing I like about Letts is she writes what some call “cupcake” fiction, but it’s not that simple. Yes, some moments feel awfully Hallmark, but then she’ll kill off a character, or in the case of Where the Heart Is, include child sex abuse (content warning). Just when you feel warm and happy, something horrifying brings you back to the scary parts of reality we all bump into.
Also, Letts seems happy to write a diverse cast of characters. These are not all white people. In Where the Heart Is, we have Native American, Hispanic, and Black characters, all of which make sense because the novel is set in Oklahoma. Letts reflects the culture and population of the state, much to the benefit of the novel.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot for fear of rambling. It reads almost like a play with many Acts, moving Novalee and Willy Jack through various moments that stand out, such as his stint in prison and her winning a photo contest. There is some tension around Willy Jack; why are we following his story? Is he going to come looking for Novalee and try to get custody of their daughter? But the big, overarching tension in the novel is when will Novalee and Forney realize they’re in love, despite all their differences? In between you get lots of smaller story arcs, creating tension that is rapidly resolved.
Really enjoyable, has some dark moments, but does read as warm-and-fuzzy, too.