A Beholden Heart

Young Adult - Coming of Age
186 Pages
Reviewed on 01/25/2016
Buy on Amazon

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    Book Review

Reviewed by Marta Tandori for Readers' Favorite

A Beholden Heart by M.L. Steinbrunn is a fresh and captivating YA story that gives credence to the old adage, “all is not as it seems.” About to head into her senior year in what’s been a somewhat sheltered life for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious, Gwen puts her foot down and refuses to go when her parents announce that they’ll be moving to London, England, thanks to a work promotion her father has received. While her popular younger sister, Meg, embraces the opportunity, Gwen simply wants the normalcy of a senior year in high school and it’s with some trepidation that her father arranges for her to stay with her eccentric grandmother, Marnie Parks, in Middleton. On her first day of school, Gwen meets Sam, a girl existing on the social fringes, and they quickly become fast friends. Her encounter with Matt Rhodes, Middleton High’s football phenomenon, comes a short time later, and their encounter is nothing if not memorable. Matt’s friend, Spencer, soon rounds out the friendship quartet.

What makes A Beholden Heart so fresh and captivating are the main protagonists, Gwen and Matt. On the face of it, Gwen is your average teenager who is striving to fit in at a new school while Matt is your basic all-star football jock. However, it’s what’s underneath that makes the two characters so compelling. It quickly becomes apparent that Gwen is not above speaking out and defending the downtrodden, even at the expense of her own social status while Matt, for all of his popularity, has suffered emotional and physical abuse from a father who happens to be the high school football coach, trying to vicariously live his own dreams through his son. Matt and Gwen are drawn together through circumstances but bond because of what they are able to offer to the other: understanding, compassion, humor, friendship and insight. Their friends, Sam and Spencer, bring depth and humor and are the perfect foils to Gwen and Matt. Another all-star in this cast of shining characters is Gwen’s grandmother, Marnie Parks, called Ms. Marnie by everyone. Despite her eccentricities in both decorating and in personal style, she has a wealth of compassion and humor that envelops those around her, not to mention a fierce protective instinct that she doesn’t hesitate to bring to the table when required.

Steinbrunn’s prose is crisp and immediately engaging while her voice is evident from the first page into the story, giving her characters both depth and authenticity. There are many parts of A Beholden Heart that will makes its readers laugh and cry. In fact, it’s very difficult to read this story without giving a piece of your own heart to Gwen and Matt. And while the story goes by quickly, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s a “quick” read. The story and its characters stay with you long after the last page has been read, all hallmarks of a great book. A Beholden Heart is exactly that – and then some.

Jack Magnus

A Beholden Heart is a young adult coming of age novel written by M.L. Steinbrunn. Gwen would just like to have a normal life for a while -- nothing extraordinary, just plain normal. She jokes with her younger sister, Meg, that she lives vicariously through her, but the truth is Gwen’s life has been an abnormally sheltered one due to the heart condition she was born with. While surgery corrected the problem, she still needs to be regularly monitored to make sure her medications and her heart are functioning as they should. And while Gwen's about to enter her senior year in high school, she's not really ever been in a physical school. When her parents announce that her father's gotten a transfer to his company's London office, Gwen puts her foot down. She wants to finish high school in Colorado, near her doctors and everything that's familiar to her. When her parents counter that she's not old enough to be left on her own, she suggests staying with Granny Marnie. Her mother laughs off the suggestion, but her father makes the call to his mother and arranges for her to spend her senior year with her grandmother. Middleton is a small town, and Granny Marnie is exuberant and non-conformist, and Gwen's about to experience the life she'd always dreamed about.

M.L. Steinbrunn's young adult coming of age novel, A Beholden Heart, is a well-written and absorbing story. Gwen is a marvelous character and watching as she finally finds herself in a real high school is a joy. Steinbrunn's characters feel real, from Matt whose coach/father is overbearing and harsh, and Spencer, his easy-going best friend, to Claire, the ultimate mean girl complete with her posse of friends. I found myself caught up in all of their stories almost as soon as I began reading this novel and loved sharing in Gwen's exhilaration as she experiences the friendships of Sam and Matt, and finds that she has a natural gift for track. Then there's Granny Marnie -- an unforgettable and original character who shines throughout this most remarkable coming of age tale. A Beholden Heart is highly recommended.

Ryan Jordan

A Beholden Heart by M.L. Steinbrunn is a story with two different characters in high school who come from completely different backgrounds, Gwen and Matt. Gradually, as the story unfolds, their lives are brought closer together. At first, she is embarrassed by a video made about her as people laugh and mock her, but when Gwen stands up for one of the popular guys at school, it brings about massive changes in her life.

The story is told from both of their perspectives, swapping chapters and always told in first-person. This adds an interesting element where there is a sort of conflicting narration. We get to see what Gwen and Matt both internalize about themselves, as well as what they think about each other, and often they don't match up. This is how life works because we never get to see into the minds of the people around us, and it adds a lot of interesting depth to the story.

I liked the fact that Gwen was willing to stand up to the coach on behalf of one of the players, simply because it was the right thing to do. The dialogue is clean and reads like spoken words, and it becomes easy to visualize the scenes as they are playing out in our minds. The ending is heartbreaking and really drives home the finality and frailty of life. All in all, A Beholden Heart by M.L. Steinbrunn is a well-written story and a great read that many people will enjoy.