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.