Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is a short yet powerful tale about the intricacies of female relationships, Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb’s Strike Your Heart.

Some books shake you when you least expect it. Such is the case with Amélie Nothomb’s Strike Your Heart – a book whose slender spine belies its considerable impact. 

Nothomb’s story follows protagonist Diane, who we first meet as a child striving for her (reluctant) mother’s affection – and failing to receive it. Diane eventually evolves into an ambitious medical student, becoming entangled in a relationship with a professor who mirrors many of her mother’s shortcomings. As Nothomb traces her character’s journey from precocious girl to accomplished professional, she masterfully explores the complexities of female relationships and delves into the turbulent dynamics – rivalry, jealousy, longing, distrust – that sometimes define these connections. 

Indeed, Diane’s story is not a solitary one; it is deeply and deftly interwoven with the stories of other women in her life. From Diane’s mother to her childhood best friend and her mentor, Nothomb deftly navigates the nuances of female relationships of all kinds, portraying intense emotional themes with subtlety and depth. 

As one might guess, one of the book’s most remarkable strengths lies in Nothomb’s exploration of psychology. Through Diane’s experiences, the author skillfully examines how childhood traumas shape individuals into the adults they become. Unresolved issues from Diane’s past loom large in her character arc, influencing her interactions with every character in the book and ultimately leading to an unexpected ending that resonates well beyond the final page. We won’t spoil it for you, though.

Central to the narrative is the theme of maternal influence, which permeates every aspect of Diane’s life. Her relationship with her neglectful mother, Marie, sets the tone for her entire existence, from her cold and exigent nature to her deep-seated feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Nothomb portrays Diane’s emotions with a restrained authenticity, abstaining from sentimentality in favour of raw, unfiltered honesty. Strike Your Heart is at its best when capturing the complexities of female relationships with both sensitivity and insight, exploring the intricacies of friendship, rivalry and familial bonds, while painting a nuanced portrait of women’s lives in all their messy, beautiful glory. Through Diane’s experiences, readers are invited to reflect on their own relationships, prompting moments of introspection and self-discovery.

Throughout the book, Nothomb’s prose is succinct yet richly layered, inviting readers to immerse themselves fully in Diane’s world and the delicate web of relationships that define her journey. Each page propels the reader forward to uncover the truths hidden beneath the surface. Whether read in a single sitting or savoured slowly over time, Nothomb’s masterpiece is sure to leave an indelible mark on all who encounter it. Strike Your Heart is a tour de force of storytelling; don’t skip this one.

Further Reading

If the sense of alienation and loss that’s felt throughout Nothomb’s work tugs at your heartstrings, it might be a good idea to pick up Haruki Murakami’s acclaimed Norwegian Wood. It might also be a good idea to reach for Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. After all, classics are classics for a reason.

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