Book review - The Lonely Hearts Club

A diverse group of men meet at the gym twice a week to chat, argue and console one another. Ranging from the middle-aged to the elderly, they are all recovering from heart operations and, on the advice of their cardiologists, work out to improve their life expectancy. In his first novel, Dennis Friedman, a psychiatrist by profession, strips bare his characters to provide a fascinating study of older men’s relationship fears.

Most members of the group have a mother fixation. Benedict is a retired church architect and lifelong bachelor. Not realising as a child that his mother was deaf, he had just presumed that she never listened to him. Jerry, a retired detective with “an overwhelming conviction that he was right about most things”, has never forgiven his mother for hiring a nanny to look after him. Silas earns his living as a sculptor of smiling cherubs, the antithesis of his own boyhood. His father had left his mother when she was pregnant and she constantly reminded him that, had there been enough time, she would have had an abortion.

Not surprisingly, when two young women, Alex and Lola, join the men in the canteen, their presence threatens the group’s fragile equilibrium. Alex has her own unresolved problems. Unsure of her sexuality she yearns for both a father and a mother figure.

Through revealing his characters’ inner conflicts, Friedman opens a door to the therapist’s room. Despite their different backgrounds, what is most surprising is the similarity of these men’s obsessions and vulnerabilities. Instead of looking forward, they repeatedly play out in their minds distant memories that they cannot dislodge. They are all distrustful of intimacy and find it hard to open up in front of women. But Friedman also finds humour in their unhealthy co-dependency:  “What one did they all did…In their tracksuits and their trainers they were barely distinguishable one from the other.”

The gym provides a temporary escape from their self-obsession but, although keen to build up their physical health, none of them seem prepared to work on their inner states. Choices the men made many years ago continue to define and confine them and they endure rather than enjoy their lives. Friedman offers a salutary warning to all those drifting through middle-age – however painful, it is never too late to face your demons in order to avoid a life of continuous regret. Multi-layered and complex, his forensic portrayal of these lonely hearts is both entertaining and provocative.

Originally published in The Independent on 19 July 2012