Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington: The Southern Coming of Age Novel of 2016?

Only Love Can Break Your HeartFiction – Southern
Released January 5, 2016
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley


The awkward and innocent, yet calculating voice of Rocky made this Southern coming of age story sparkle…and reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of 2015.

Plot Summary

When Richard (aka “Rocky”) was eight years old, his rebellious older half-brother, Paul, disappears without explanation, setting off a chain of events that impact their family and community in rural Spencerville, Virginia.

Why I Read It

Rory at Fourth Street Review (my go-to source for Grit Lit recommendations) brought this novel to my attention via her Debut Novels to Look For: Early 2016 list. I haven’t seen many reviews from the bloggers I follow (yet), but I would LOVE for this one to get some more attention!

Major Themes

Coming of age, bonds between brothers, dysfunctional families

What I Liked

  • While I wouldn’t call this debut novel “Grit Lit”, it is a top-notch Southern coming of age story that reminded me a bit of My Sunshine Away, one of my favorite books of last year. Like My Sunshine Away, there is “action” and suspense in this story, but it really serves as a vehicle for Rocky’s coming of age, not the other way around.
  • I loved the focus on the imperfect bond between brothers and the healthy dose of the type of teenage boy hijinks that went on before the world became more uptight.

All I knew was that Paul was effortlessly cool – that even the people who scowled at him plainly desired and envied both his beauty and his indifference. Naturally I worshipped him.

  • But, what really made this book sparkle for me was Rocky, the narrator’s, voice. It’s just the right mix of awkward teenage boy (i.e. Rocky tries to flirt with a girl by making her a mix tape!), innocence, angst, and calculation.

We must all recall the incomprehensible spite of the schoolyard bully: the random selectivity of his malice, the helpless acquiescence of his prey. Perhaps the worst of all, the pathetic betrayal of the victim’s so-called friends, who stand aside or perhaps even laugh and jeer, loyalty being a far less powerful instinct than self-preservation.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I would have liked to lop off the last 10 pages or so of this book. The story ended beautifully for me – a perfect balance of wrapping things up and letting some questions remain unanswered. Then, there came another ten pages of neat and tidy updates on where all the characters ended up…which read much like an Epilogue (but it wasn’t) or a high school yearbook’s Senior Predictions section.
  • If you think you might want to read this book, I would avoid reading the publisher’s blurb (or at least the second paragraph). It includes way too much information for my taste!

A Defining Quote

At some point, every boy feels the urge to lash out at something, to be cruel and violent, to curse the world for its frail humanity. But only a few have the will – be it born of courage or recklessness, folly or sublime wisdom – to act and, by their action, transform themselves. They will pay for their courage, of course; the world does not treat its others lightly. But so will the rest of us – the ones who love them – haunted as we are by our envy of their bright, burning beauty, which we can bear neither to look at nor to turn away from.

Good for People Who Like…

Southern Fiction, gorgeous writing, coming of age, teenage angst, small town life, secrets/betrayals

Other Books You May Like

Southern fiction with a similar narrator’s voice:
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

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  1. Judy wrote:

    Thanks for your review. I have had my eye on this one. I like all these things: “Southern Fiction, gorgeous writing, coming of age, teenage angst, small town life, secrets/betrayals.”

    Posted 1.28.16 Reply
  2. I want so badly for my library queue to come up, so I can hop on this one. I think my patience is wearing thin, and I’ll probably wind up just buying it, instead of waiting for the library order to arrive.

    Posted 1.28.16 Reply
  3. Alright, I’m convinced. Adding this one to the list 🙂

    Posted 1.29.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:


      Posted 2.1.16 Reply
  4. It’s been ages since I read a good ‘coming of age’ book. I will keep my eyes open, just in case it turns out in my library.

    Posted 1.30.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Yay! I’m glad it’s getting some more attention!

      Posted 2.1.16 Reply
  5. Adding to my wishlist as we speak 🙂 I love small town coming-of-age stories. Sounds right up my alley, so thanks!

    Posted 1.30.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:


      Posted 2.1.16 Reply
  6. You’ve sold me on this one! I love Southern fiction!

    Posted 1.30.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Yay! I’m dying for it to get more attention!

      Posted 2.1.16 Reply
  7. Athira wrote:

    I like the sound of this one, but will try to stay away from the blurb. I haven’t heard of this one previously but now it’s going on my list.

    Posted 1.30.16 Reply
  8. Sarah R wrote:

    I just ordered this one, so I’m glad it has your stamp of approval. I love coming of age stories, but I tend to read more from the female standpoint, and as the mother of a 7 year old boy, I should probably read more from a boy’s perspective.

    I’m a member of, and this was one of their 5 selections for February.

    Posted 2.2.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I was so happy to see this one as a Book of the Month Club choice! I feel like it’s flown under the radar and I hope it gets more attention! Tell all your friends if you love it! And – I have a young son, so this book sure revealed some interesting things I might have to look forward to. Ha! Thanks for stopping by!

      Posted 2.4.16 Reply
  9. Wendy wrote:

    Hi Sarah, thanks for recommending this book. I’m about half way through and really enjoying it so far. I also loved My Sunshine Away (which I read based on your review.) Love your blog!

    Posted 2.2.16 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      I’m so glad to hear that!! Well, both of those things! As you know, My Sunshine Away was one of my faves from last year! And thank you for the kind words about my blog 🙂

      Posted 2.4.16 Reply

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