When we first meet Ailsa Rae, she is about to receive the heart transplant that she has needed so desperately, and that will save her life. On the other side of the operation, well on the road to recovery, she is hit with a problem she never thought she’d have – what does she do next?
Ailsa has been ill since birth, and at 28 she’s already exceeded the life expectancy forecast by many a doctor. Now with potential decades stretching out ahead of her, she has things to do: independence to reclaim, a job to find, and maybe even a little romance…
What first jumps out at you whilst reading The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae is just how well researched it is. Author Stephanie Butland gets the medical details right without ever leaving her novel reading like a text book. What’s more impressive though are the quotidian aspects of a limited life that you wouldn’t think of unless you’d been there; Ailsa has always preferred films and books to TV shows, because she wants to be able to finish the story before her own story is finished.
Perhaps to offset the heaviness of the subject matter, Butland infuses The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Raewith plenty of whimsy. And it doesn’t work. Ailsa runs a successful blog where she writes about her experiences with her heart. In each entry, she polls the reading audience on what she should do with her life. She polls on everything from attire for a radio interview to whether she should search for her biological father. Contrasted with the impressive medical detail, these blog sections seem silly, and don’t ever ring true. Inspired by one of these polls, Ailsa decides to refer to her new heart as ‘Apple’. That never stops being irritating.
The leading man here is Seb, a TV star who meets Ailsa at a radio interview for transplant recipients (he is the proud owner of a new cornea). The two hit it off immediately, and we follow the progression of their relationship through both the main body of text and their ongoing email exchange. Their relationship is witty, comfortable and fun; one of the book’s highlights. You miss him in chapters where he doesn’t appear.
What you would not miss is the subplot centred around Ailsa’s biological father, who deserted her when she was a baby, fazed by the prospect of a life with a seriously ill child. Although her mother is vehemently against Ailsa trying to find him, she does anyway. It all plays out as you’d imagine. This plot strand doesn’t take up too much space, but it’s so unnecessary. At almost four hundred pages, The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Raedoesn’t need the weight of such a predictable side story.
Whilst it is warm, funny, and well-researched, The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Raeis too often bogged down by excess whimsy and pointless subplots. With some judicious editing, it could have been so much better.
The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae is published by Zaffre on 19 April 2018