Originally published 3/26/09. Updated 8/23/16.
Dean Koontz is known for having similar underlying themes in his novels; most of them include something to do with amoral villains planning some sort of horrific event to harm the individual in the book. While his basic structures aren’t totally mindblowing, the scaffolding that he builds off of yields some interesting and varied concepts that push the boundaries of the thriller genre. In Your Heart Belongs to Me, we see Koontz taking on a few new territories for him (or at least a slight turn from his recent slew of stories) that guide his thematic ideas in a different direction.
Enter Ryan Perry, a thirty-something young man who has made a huge name for himself with his work on computer programming and the Internet. Meet his girlfriend, a beautiful young woman named Samantha who shares Ryan’s love of writing, but in a different sense; she is currently busy working on a novel. Ryan is out surfing one day with Sam when he has a life-changing experience – a mini-seizure with shortness of breath and pain in his chest. A few doctor visits later, Ryan finds out that he has enlargement of the heart, a symptom of an inherited disease that the doctors call cardiomyopathy. The doctor gives Ryan less than a year to live unless he can get a heart transplant.
Before Ryan gets the diagnosis of inherited cardiomyopathy, he believes that someone might have tried to poison him, as that is one of a number of causes that could lead to the cardiomyopathy. He snoops around, investigating Sam’s mother and her boyfriend and even his own caretakers. When he finds out it couldn’t have been poisoning, he still keeps his suspicions as he undergoes the surgery without telling his girlfriend. A year later, he and Sam are broken up because of Ryan’s insistence on finding a heart quickly, and Ryan is now targeted by a homicidal woman who looks exactly like the lady who gave Ryan his new heart. What’s going on in Ryan’s life?
For the most part, Koontz’s prose is spot-on, and his attention to detail, along with his elegant similes, metaphors, and alliteration, allow for easy and fast reading. His chapters are short and concise, getting to the real meat of the situation without a long wind-up which keeps the plot moving at a fast clip. His voice comes through like always, especially in the dialogue, which always tends to be a bit comedic and heavy on the jokes and wordplay.
The plot is engaging, not so much because of Koontz’s great use of foreshadowing but because of the mixed feelings the reader gets about the protagonist. Ryan is a man that has both good and bad qualities rolled into one, a mixed bag of both gentleness and paranoid forcefulness. It’s hard to get a good impression of Ryan; at points, he seems like a great guy, paying his employees well and treating Samantha with the utmost respect. Yet his characterization gives him a strange attitude that the reader can’t always trust, a staple-point of Koontz’s novel. It is due to Koontz’s successful juxtaposition between caring-boyfriend-Ryan and suspicious-greedy-backstabbing-Ryan that the book’s theme of greed and wealth can truly play out.
At first, I was a little bit thrown by Koontz’s use of a rich man as a protagonist. Normally, his characters are everyday people thrown into stressful and empowering situations. Here, Ryan is thrown into a stressful situation where it’s obvious he has the ability to overcome it; because of this, the beginning drags on a little too long as Ryan becomes significantly worried about his health and the identity of the person poisoning him. The actual bulk of the plot doesn’t begin to become clear to the reader until about 200 pages in, making it seem as though both of the two conflicts are equally important when in reality they aren’t.
Yet the middle of the novel throws a lot of stuff at the reader that would hold the attention span of even the wildest of ADHD kids. There’s mention of ghosts, mysterious visitations, and even… even… TWINS. Coors Light knows what I’m talking about. Even though it seemed random, I was captivated by Koontz’s prose – until I reached the end of the novel, where he left me hanging without explanations.
The conclusion is lacking in both depth and surprise. For a while, I was confused why Samantha broke up with Ryan and would not marry him, but as we see his paranoid delusions and greedy need for a heart, it’s not a big surprise when the “twist” is revealed. The evidence is stacked really high against Ryan – it was not hard to piece together, and I felt like it dropped off in intensity too much. Even the final confrontation with the villain is a little cliched; there’s a standoff and then no climax. It feels almost forced and is a disappointment when the reader has come so far only to find nothing to exhilarate them.
Samantha plays a large part in the first third of the novel, but once her and Ryan break up with each other, she drops out of the plot significantly. This was actually a welcome transition for the novel, since Samantha’s glowing presence helps the reader fully recognize Ryan’s weaknesses. However, towards the end of the story there is a bit of an emotional tug towards wanting to see Ryan and Sam back together, and Koontz gives us a bit of unrequited love here that leaves us wanting more but is a giant difference from Koontz’s happier endings. I applaud this experimentation, and though the audience may not be happy with the turn of events, it definitely feels more genuine.
Even though Your Heart Belongs to Me may be lacking a few key moments, Koontz has done well to write a novel distinguishing itself from his more current back catalogue. As with Stephen King, as Koontz ages it seems his characters are forced to examine their own mortalities, not in the face of a person or enemy but with the collapse of their own bodies. Here, Koontz uses the interesting concept of a heart transplant as a setup for a traditional revenge story that enlightens on the political and monetary aspect of the medical world. Koontz talks a lot about subtext in the novel, and while his seems to slightly hit the reader over the head, he’s done a good job crafting a story that is in essence familiar and refreshing, if just a little bleak.