When single dad Michael Stewart takes time out of his busy Saturday to help Elizabeth, his teenage daughter, earn needed community service points at a church food drive, he has no idea what a time commitment he has really made. A trapdoor in the church basement lures Elizabeth into an underground tunnel. Michael follows and they emerge a short walk later onto a first century Jerusalem street in Necessary Heartbreak, a first novel by Michael J. Sullivan. They are soon in the thick of Jerusalem events with Michael arrested and put in prison while Elizabeth is rescued by a beautiful stranger named Leah. During the days they spend in the city they witness and take part in scenes from the Passion week. In a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, Michael experiences an epiphany that changes his life.
Setting-wise, the characters are suitably surprised when they go from technology-driven 21st century America (complete with Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, though thankfully they left cell phones behind) to the simple life of first century Jerusalem. Their reaction made the contrasting settings feel credible.
However, the plot seemed creaky in parts. Michael and Elizabeth repeatedly voice intentions and make attempts to return to the tunnel and home, which always end in postponement of failure. In this regard, it didn’t take long for me to feel like I was trapped in a bad dream – one which I quickly realized wouldn’t end until the Passion story had played out. One of the questions in the Reading Group Guide at the end was, “Why do Michael and Elizabeth keep finding excuses to stay in Jerusalem one more day?” The answer seemed obvious: because the author needs them to, in order for them to take part in the Easter story.
The ongoing narrative is interrupted by many flashbacks giving back-story scenes from the lives of Michael, Elizabeth and Leah. Despite the sometimes less-than-stellar reputation of the flashback as a storytelling device, I felt these worked well. They are told in the same brisk style as the main narrative (read an excerpt) and fill the reader in on pertinent background information.
The main characters are likable enough. Sullivan does a great job of depicting Elizabeth as a typical teenager in the modern setting part. Elizabeth and Michael’s relationship is warm and tangible – though he does have a tendency to smother her, and she is often whiny, demanding, and acts like a typical spoiled only child. Both Michael and Leah gained my sympathy through the flashback scenes of Michael’s difficult childhood, his relationship with his wife, and the death of Leah’s husband.
One of the big issues that Michael struggles with is how to make sense of his wife’s tragic and untimely death. In this regard, I thought Sullivan’s explanation (in the “Author Q&A” section) of how he came to explore handling life’s pains in the way he did is revealing and speaks to what he hoped to accomplish in the book:
“I was without money and a roof over my head, riding the E train in New York City at night. I sought help from many including a family friend who helped run a church. He turned me back into the cold New Year’s eve night in 1983…. I found myself questioning the wrong person – Jesus Christ. So I wanted to send my characters back in time to restore the meaning of life to myself. I wanted my characters to be part of history’s most important moment. I wanted them to experience what the true meanings of life, faith, and sacrifice really are” pp. 248-9. (Read more personal thoughts written by the author on his blog.)
All in all, in Necessary Heartbreak Sullivan has written a thought-provoking book about the roles that heartbreak and the healing of faith and time play in maturing us and helping us live fully. A sequel – The Greatest Christmas Gift – is in the works.