cover image Learned by Heart

Learned by Heart

Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-56443-4

Donoghue (Haven) returns with an impressive story inspired by Eliza Raine, who was written about in Anne Lister’s coded diaries about her lesbian love life. At the beginning of the 19th century at a chilly boarding school in Yorkshire, 14-year-olds Eliza and Anne share a garret near the servants’ quarters. Born in India to an Indian mother and an East India Company man, Eliza has been sent to England for “finishing” by her father, who is subsequently lost at sea, leaving her and her sister with a small fortune and in the care of guardians. Anne is vibrant, defiant, and smarter than most of the other “Middles” in their class, and she soon draws the observant but reserved Eliza into her orbit. In Anne’s presence, Eliza grows in confidence and the two become inseparable as their friendship turns sexual. The bonds that form between the two girls ultimately lead to Eliza’s tragic undoing, and she ends up in a mental asylum. Donoghue makes good use of her choice to delve into Eliza’s perspective rather than Anne’s by exploring the steep cost for her protagonist of tethering herself to a rebel. This melancholic love story is imbued with deep feeling and generosity toward its characters. (Aug.)