The Art of Hearing Heartbeats
by Jan-Philipp Sendker
When Julia Win’s father disappears one morning without a trace, on the day after her graduation from law school, her family is left unsettled and confused. It’s not until a few years later that her mother finds a piece of the puzzle --- an unmailed love letter to a Burmese woman named Mi Mi.
Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia puts her career and her life on hold to travel to the village where Mi Mi once lived. Her journey takes her to the small mountain village of Kalaw, where she is approached by a man who claims to know her father, and who seems to have an uncanny knowledge of Julia herself. Intrigued, she returns to meet him every afternoon and listen to his incredible tales of her father’s youth --- of his childhood blindness, his education at a monastery, and, most of all, about his passionate relationship with a local girl.
At first Julia is unwilling to believe that the romantic boy in this poignant story has anything to do with her reticent father, but soon she can no longer withstand the almost mystical invoking of mysterious past events, entwined as they are with the influence of the stars and with a love larger than life.
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a magical and uplifting tale of hardship and resilience, and the unyielding power of love to move mountains.
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1. In your opinion, what does the back-and-forth between Julia’s and U Ba’s narratives add to the telling of the love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi? How do these stories interrelate?
2. Tin Win is born to parents who abandon him as a child but Mi Mi is born into a close-knit family. Mi Mi’s mother, especially, adores her daughter. Do you see this developmental difference reflected in the adult each one becomes, or in the way the two relate to one another?
3. After he loses his sight, Tin Win spends several years in a monastery under the tutelage of the abbot, U May. In your opinion, what does U May model for Tin Win? How does Tin Win grow in these years?
4. Tin Win’s wealthy uncle, U Saw, finances Tin Win’s eye operation and subsequent education abroad. But to U Saw’s discredit, his motives are self-interested, and for his own convenience, he obstructs all communication between Tin Win and Mi Mi. Is U Saw portrayed as a villain --- or is he even villainous?
5. A portion of the novel is in the form of letters. Does this change the mood or the flow of the novel? The way you see the characters?
6. Tin Win and Mi Mi develop an intense, literally symbiotic relationship: he walks for her; she acts as his eyes. They become inseparable, but then they are separated for decades. Given what you know about each character, how do you think they are able to withstand the time apart?
7. Discuss the role of memory in the novel, both individual and collective.
8. Burma (now known as Myanmar) was occupied by the British from the nineteenth century until 1948. How important is this colonial history to the major events of the novel?
9. Prophecy and superstition play a significant role in Burmese culture. Do you think this belief system inspires a fundamental feeling of security or of anxiety in the main characters of the novel, and why?
10. The novel contrasts Western and Eastern values: individualism and personal achievement versus kinship and transcendence. Where and how are these differences brought to light?
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"Sendker has a mesmerizing way with words, slowly drawing the reader into the story….It is a book well worth reading."
"[A] brilliant debut…Sendker's novel proves to be a love story of the most masterful variety: one that requires a box of tissues without ever venturing into the land of cliché. Coupled with an unusual glimpse into the Burma of the 1950s and today, readers will delight in the emotional power of Sendker's storytelling and find themselves believing not only in the power of love, but the strength of family."
Shelf Awareness for Readers
"Magical…It's stories like The Art of Hearing Heartbeats that show how our very existence is important….What a gift that is."
"An epic narrative that requires…a large box of tissues."
"[The Art of Hearing Heartbeats] is a love story set in Burma…imbued with Eastern spirituality and fairy-tale romanticism…Fans of Nicholas Sparks and/or Elizabeth Gilbert should eat this up."
"Already a huge hit in Europe, Sendker’s debut is a lush tale of romance and family set in mid-twentieth century Burma…A beautiful tale bound to enchant readers on this side of the Atlantic."
"A strong, interesting, heartfelt story of love and understanding will keep readers glued to the last page. 4 and a half stars."
Romantic Times Book Reviews, Top Pick
"With Valentine’s Day just looming, this ‘little-novel-that-could-and-did’ is poised to hit bestseller lists sooner than later. The story’s simple (dare I say … blind?!) trust in the everlasting power of love guarantees Heartbeats‘ sweetness will last far longer than the empty calories of even the very best heart-shaped confections."
Terry Hong, BookDragon
"A love story that puts The Notebook to shame…for the love-hungry, the romantic, the dreamer, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a satisfying escape from reality. Love like this may not exist in our world, but we might be better off if it did."
"Sendker’s descriptions and his setting in Burma, a country which few readers know, lend a sense of atmosphere and mystery to the novel, and his often lyrical approach to the points of view of Tin Win and Mi Mi creates a charming romance which will keep many readers fascinated."
Seeing the World Through Books
The Quiet Moments
"Set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is a rare novel. Telling the story of a young blind man’s journey through a world of auditory intensity, Jan-Philipp Sendker renews one’s faith in the possibility of real, pure love. I finished the book in tears."
Shawna Yang Ryan, author of Water Ghosts
"No matter what I even attempt to say, I can’t possibly capture the absolute magic of this book. Like a spell, it haunts. Like love, it’s going to endure."
Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
"A story at once both poignant and joyous, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats reaffirms how love can transform the harshest of realities into a mystical one. Sendker takes us from contemporary, upscale New York to impoverished Burma, weaving a complex tale that is part romance, part father-daughter story. Reading this book was like reading poetry, with full attention required for each sentence. A thoroughly immersive and enjoyable read."
Margaret Dilloway, author of How to Be an American Housewife
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