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Summer of the Heart: Saving Alexandre

by Paul Adams

We’ve all watched with some amusement as frantic first-time parents worry whether each sound (or lack thereof) emitting from their newborn’s crib is a sign of something critical. In Summer of the Heart, Paul Adams, a Middle East correspondent for The Globe and Mail, describes how his worst nursery imaginings came true.

At two weeks old, Adams’ son Alexandre just seemed off his feed. But the boy landed suddenly in an emergency department and was soon diagnosed with a severe heart defect. Alexandre entered a world of tubes, wires, and operations, while his bewildered parents endured hospital stays, a barrage of medical terms, and a priest’s garish ministrations. Adams intersperses his story with a whack of anatomical detail, mirroring his own learning curve as he tried to figure out how his son’s tiny heart was put together.

While it’s impossible not to sympathize with Adams and his wife or be taken with the difficulty of operating on a baby’s heart, the memoir is undermined by structural problems. The narrative begins on a slow note, with an account of how Adams met his wife, and struggles to find its feet until about the halfway point. Literary devices, such as asides about Aristotle’s theories of the heart, provide for some interesting reading, but mainly serve to fill out a thin plot.

When the tale does pick up pace, narrative threads that were starting to add tension are inexplicably dropped. Adams’ bout of apparent alcoholism vanishes without an explanation, a long-standing marital tension about living overseas is instantly resolved, and a series of subsequent operations for Alexandre – the source of no small apprehension – don’t even get described.

Another problem here is that compared to many Canadians’ experience with health care nowadays, this story just doesn’t seem that fraught with difficulty. Many people could better relate to a tale in which the parents’ anxieties were compounded by months’-long waiting lists, a shortage of specialists, treatment in an ER hallway, and decisions about whether to fly to the U.S. for faster care. As a drama set in a Canadian hospital, Alexandre’s story just has too much horrible competition.