Sara Ryan’s first novel, 2001’s The Empress of the World, was widely hailed as one of the first teen novels to portray a lesbian relationship as a romance, not an identity crisis. In The Rules for Hearts, Ryan revisits one of her debut novel’s main characters while continuing to develop her themes of maturity, self-discovery, love and loss. Still nursing a broken heart after her first big relationship, Battle Hall Davies has just driven from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon, where she will be a freshman at Reed College in the fall. Battle’s the good one in the family, the one her parents are proud of but little do her parents know that Battle is moving cross-country at the urging of her brother Nick, who’s been estranged from the family for more than four years. Battle has always idolized her older brother, and jumps at the chance to reconnect with him by moving into the co-op house where he lives with an eccentric group of friends. Soon enough, Battle herself is drawn into the games and dramas both real and figurative that characterize the house’s inhabitants. Battle even finds herself attracted to Meryl, an elusive young woman who seems to have a history with Nick. Before the summer is over, though, Battle will have discovered some new information about Meryl and Nick and herself that cause her to view all three in a brand-new light.
It’s no accident that the house where Battle finds herself is called Forest House, or that the house’s inhabitants stage a community theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ryan makes the parallels between real life and Shakespeare’s stage explicit, and early on, the house’s matriarch says the play is about how you don’t come out of the forest unchanged. Sure enough, Battle’s summer at Forest House leaves her deeply changed and far more ready to face college and the rest of her life. Offering few easy answers but much opportunity for reflection, Ryan encourages her readers to travel with Battle on the rocky path to transformation and maturity.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston.