Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King was my Chloe’s Choice Challenge book for January. My youngest daughter, who is choosing one book a month off our shelves for me to read, chose the book because she liked the title and the cover and because, “It has been on the shelf ever since I can remember.” Honestly, I think that I have had this book since long before she was born in 2007.
The narrative is five interconnected stories that share a common theme—how group behavior can affect people in a negative fashion. The first two stories, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and the title story, “Hearts in Atlantis,” are by far the longest (I would call them novellas) and introduce the reader to all of the main characters who will pop up in the stories. Both main stories are set in the 1960s, with subsequent stories being spaced out chronologically until 1999. Group behavior, first in small town childhood and then in college, sets the tone of these first two stories and gives the reader insight into what is looming on the horizon for these kids (Vietnam) and how their crowd mentality, learned in childhood and adolescence, will adversely affect their future actions.
A common question with Stephen King books is whether or not it is a horror novel. The only thing that comes close is the first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” but even that is more a sci-fi vibe than horror. “Hearts in Atlantis” has a psychological element to it. “Blind Willie,” the third story, was, in my opinion, the weakest story; it almost has it’s own theme, with its emphasis on the morality of the choices made by a Vietnam vet after his return from the war, but you do see the group behavior element quite strongly in Willie’s flashbacks. The premise of the story was great, but I just felt that it lacked emotional punch and thus was a missed opportunity. The last two stories, “Why We’re in Vietnam” and “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” have a very slight magical realism element to them.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. Structurally, the book succeeded in that the short story format allowed for large jumps in time and diverse settings. Watching the characters evolve made for excellent character development, both through the individual stories and then through time into subsequent revelations in later stories.
What cost this book a fifth star was continuity. The character element was the only area where I felt like every story flowed smoothly into the next. In the sci-fi/magical realism area there wasn’t any continuity, and its lack made the stories feel disjointed despite their common characters. The first story was sci-fi, the second psychological, the third had no supernatural elements, the fourth had a ghost, and the fifth wrapped things up for two main characters with a baseball mitt that traveled mysteriously through several stories. There were just too many different supernatural elements for there to be flow in that regard, and it was enough to cost the book a fifth star from me.
Despite my feelings about the supernatural forms being inconsistent, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would absolutely recommend it. My only caution would be for readers who won’t read books with any profanity. Two of the main plots in the stories involve college boys and soldiers in Vietnam, so yes, there is some profanity. If you can get past that, this book will make you really think about group behavior—how it affects individuals and society and the role it has probably played in the decisions you have made in your life.