National Book Award finalist Jean Thompson returns with her latest novel, She Poured Out Her Heart. An exploratory tale about relationships put to the test, the book presents a story that could be simplistic and clichéd, but is instead an intricate testament of emotional voids and desires to love and be loved in return.
Shifting from two different points of view, She Poured Out Her Heart investigates the relationship between two women, Jane and Bonnie. Their friendship has survived college, real life, and Jane’s marriage to Eric a successful doctor who adores Jane, and tries unsuccessfully to make her happy. Thompson’s decision in granting us Jane’s point of view allows us to see that she never truly wanted to marry Eric, or for that matter, to have the life of stay-at-home mother of two. As the story unfolds so does Jane, she becomes unhinged, her minding drifting and unconsciously wondering to what she calls “the white room” where she can stop being herself, at least for a while.
The additional point of view that Thompson offers is that of Jane’s best friend Bonnie. A proverbial mess in relationships, Bonnie tumbles from one man to the next, never finding the love that she wants and is moreover, never loved back in return.
Time shifts are an essential ingredient of the novel, the narrative changing between Jane and Bonnie’s POV, describing how they met in college, their different relationships, and the different routes their lives took. Perhaps the writer lays it on a bit thick with the excessive internal dialogue, particularly in moments of tension between the characters, where they should be confronting each other instead of their individual thoughts.
All in all, their friendship seems to stand strong until one night during a Christmas party, Jane is found lying down in the back yard, buried naked in the snow and staring at nothing. From this point on, the story that surrounds Bonnie, Eric, and Jane changes dramatically and unequivocally. Thompson amply explores the fragility of the mind, but in Jane’s case it’s more than losing her sanity temporarily or a mental breakdown. Her retreats are perceived more as spiritual, albeit not religious, and Jane begins to achieve a clarity and enlightenment that allows her to see and perceive things more clearly. This is how she comes to know of the affair between Bonnie and Eric, which begun ironically that Christmas Eve, the night she was found naked in the snow.
Whether perhaps Thompson means to make us hate Bonnie for beginning a sexual relationship with her best friend’s husband, her descriptive narrative of Bonnie’s POV makes us not want to judge her too harshly. Bonnie’s life has always been surrounded with uncertainty, beginning with a biological father that abandoned her and her mother. This sets Bonnie on the path of becoming a woman desperate to be loved, and starved for a unique form of affection. In Eric, she sees her own loneliness and hunger for affection mirrored back which is why they are drawn to each other in the first place. They become unable to withdraw from the small niche of comfort and love that they have created with one another, constantly struggling with the reality that they are both betraying Jane in the most horrible manner.
Thompson doesn’t make Eric and Bonnie’s relationship solely about sex, although there is that of course. Just like she doesn’t make Jane’s detachment and inability to properly love her husband and her life solely about her mental state. The characters are painfully human, and we realize that they are all at fault for the situation they have put themselves in.
She Poured Out Her Heart is at best an emotional and moral dilemma. Bonnie’s actions are wrong and some might say outright disgusting and treacherous. Bonnie herself knows that her actions are rooted in a deeper need for unconditional love and acceptance, and she mournfully tries to convey this sentiment to Eric, describing the core of their difficult relationship: “It’s too much crazy love,” she tells him. Deep down Bonnie knows that she and Eric can never be, not because Eric doesn’t love her but because he will never be truly hers; a part of him will always belong to Jane and his children.
The novel will predictably leave many of Thompson’s readers upset, missing the point that this isn’t the story of a home-wrecker stealing her best friend’s husband. Thompson defies the conventionality of the love triangle by delving deeper into the state of consciousness of both women, and in the end it is obvious that Bonnie and Jane are different sides of the same coin. That being said, She Poured Out Her Heart is also a cautionary tale; some lines, particularly in the realm of love and friendship, should never be crossed, even if the desire for a higher kind of love is stronger than the more grounding need of fidelity.