Click here to read an excerpt from John Gill's Sacred Hearts
Love. Death. Alienation and satisfaction at the last. In prose that's grippingly spare but never scant, John Gill's Sacred Hearts
flies from Paris to Long Island to Paris once more, watching William Townsend wring out
what he can from the end of his life -- to save the woman he loves, to give her the child she wants, to choose death rather than let it come to him. A beautifully told tale, Sacred Hearts captures exquisite details
of setting -- the tourist's Paris has never looked more beautiful to a reader's eye -- and suggests the extreme strain a man dying too young has to deal with through parsimonious
dialogue and plainspoken but powerful descriptive scraps.
The novel opens with an obvious homage to Hemingway, the unchallenged master
of plain but powerful prose, in which Townsend and his fiancee, Nicole, prepare
to fly from New York to Paris. It's "Hills Like White Elephants" redux, only
this time it's after the fact of the procedure, and the man isn't sending "the
girl" off by herself -- yet. What is ostensibly a recovery vacation for
what they call Nicole's "miscarriage," as well as a pre-proposal honeymoon,
Townsend secretly intends this extravagant trip he can't afford to be his final
gift to Nicole. Stricken by a congenital heart condition that is in sharp
decline, Townsend is going to Paris to die.
Only things don't work out like he's planned. After he sends Nicole on a plane back to the States, he gets a call from a physician friend that Nicole's had an accident -- an automobile crash that's left her comatose, prognosis grim. But it's plain that the accident was completely intentional, a woman grieving a lost child and a lost love trying to end her own life.
After a sort of comico-tragédie of errors with the airlines in which Townsend nearly loses every bit of carefully hoarded control over his destiny, and after the fateful death of a child in a Parisian park, he returns to the US, determined to nurse her -- and love her -- back to health. Nicole recovers, but Townsend's condition continues to worsen.
He tries to ignore the true state of his health, or at least trying to hide it from Nicole,
and takes a sabbatical from his professorial duties to help her win a heart-wrenching legal case in which a negligent drug-addicted mother is trying to prevent her daughter's adoption by foster parents.
The pacing slips in this brief middle section which, while highlighting real problems with the nation's social services and child advocacy programs, is like a reverse fever-dream, a too-didactic, differently toned
hallucination of a courtroom thriller to the reader, who just wants to get back to the story as it was being told.
It's arguably important to the story as far as characterization, but as
ill-fitting as the square peg in a round hole.
Thankfully Gill finds his footing once more, and Sacred Hearts cruises to its inevitably bittersweet conclusion.
From a cathedral at the beginning to an abbey at the end, from park fountains to
high tides, it comes full circle. The last few pages might have served the novel better as an epilogue, in fact may not even have been necessary, but getting to that last merciless, heartbreaking line is worth it.
Note: Readers can "buy" a copy of Sacred Hearts by donating to Children's Rights of New York, Inc., a not-for-profit child advocacy, safety, and missing child agency organized in New York State. All contributions are tax deductible. Visit
John Gill's Sacred Hearts website for more information