Mark Wagstaff’s Attack of the Lonely Hearts, published by Anvil Press and winner of the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, is an ambitious piece of fiction that follows thirty-something Margaret Rudge as she attempts to re-start her life and form a relationship with David, a modern and contemporary dancer.
In the opening chapters, we’re introduced to newly single Margaret and the rules of her world: a world in which Margaret’s silly friend Cindy still punctuates every sentence with ‘totally’ and Margaret corrales a job at a coffee cart by blabbering to the owner to the point of exhaustion. The mood is Bridget Jones’s Diary-esque with all the unlikely whimsy of desperate romance. Margaret’s goal of getting over her ex-husband and moving on both romantically and emotionally is tangible in each chapter, but the means by which she attempts to reach this goal surprised me (though they were always in keeping with her tenacious spirit).
I was unsure if I wanted to read another novel committed to a character who just can’t get their life together. It’s like a car accident: you want to look away, you can’t tear your eyes from the scene (or the page) no matter how hard you try. Plotlines that are based around these themes are often difficult to put down, their sole strength lying in their ability to connect with our subconscious fear that the same things will happen to us.
These stories tend to revel in the awkward, the incompetent and the downright impotent aspects of human behaviour, but Wagstaff’s Margaret Rudge is an exception to this tendency. Her strength as a character shines through her undeniable charm and tenacity, transforming Margaret from hopeless to surprisingly likeable. I know, the main character of any work of fiction doesn’t need to be likeable, but Margaret’s likeability came at such a surprise that I didn’t become aware of my own change of heart until I realized that the story was coming to an end. Once I caught on to the rhythms of her character, relating to my worst, mopiest self to Margaret felt indulgent—just the kind of experience you would hope to get from a short, light-hearted read.
Despite Wagstaff’s masterful use of language, at times it did feel as though the pacing was rushed, not giving the characters (with the exception of Margaret) enough time to develop. Whether this was a result of time limitations, or a specific choice made by Wagstaff with the intent to give the reader a glimpse of this world, it’s hard to say.
Margaret can be, at times, less than believable as a character. What struck me the most was her melodramatic musings at the failure of her marriage–these felt more like the punchline than the heart-wrenching personal admission it was meant to be. This melodrama was an interesting contrast to David, a highly sincere character, who becomes an almost-calming presence on the page. This contrast even extends to their social lives, and work. Unlike Margaret, who is struggling to understand what she wants to do, David is secure in his career as a dancer. I enjoyed the odds that were stacked against these characters, that this novel reached beyond two beautifully perfect people meeting by accident and falling in love.
Attack of the Lonely Hearts is available online at anvilpress.com or at your local independent bookstore.