A Little Love Story, by Roland Merullo. Published 2005 by Vintage. Literary Fiction.
A Little Love Story will feel like familiar territory for fans of Roland Merullo, author of the novels Breakfast with Buddha and Revere Beach Boulevard, among others. The protagonist is a regular Boston-area guy, a carpenter as a matter of fact, privileged by upbringing but carrying some guilt. In Breakfast with Buddha, Merullo's protagonist dealt with his bourgeois ennui by trying to be a good liberal; in this case, the main character, Jake Entwhistle, deals with it by rejecting a career in medicine for the less glamorous (but still remunerative) life of a successful tradesman and artist.
When Jake meets Janet Rossi, a beautiful and whip-smart political aide with a difficult chronic illness, it's a year after his girlfriend Giselle has died on the plane over Pennsylvania in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The book chronicles Jake's efforts to forge a relationship with Janet with death always close at hand, as well as deal with his lingering sadness and the after-effects of 9/11. In that way, this book is similar to Perrin Ireland's Chatter, another story of post-9/11 angst among the bohemian bourgeoisie. The terrorist attacks are a metaphor for instability and the fragility of life- not that we need a metaphor since we have Janet, who weakens before our eyes.
It probably sounds like I didn't like the book very much; actually I'm ambivalent. As always with Merullo I admire his writing- he's a superb craftsman- and his compassion and respect for his characters. Even the slimy governor, Janet's former lover and the key to her survival, is treated with a certain amount of dignity. As in Breakfast with Buddha, Jake relies on a quasi-religious figure (this time his brother) to help him stay focused; in fact, sometimes A Little Love Story read almost like a rough draft for Breakfast with Buddha, a much better novel. I can't say I liked Jake very much, although he acts with great love and devotion towards Janet. I just found him to be almost too good, and I didn't find their relationship, their great romance, very convincing either. Merullo doesn't show any ambivalence in Jake, any complications to his personality, or to Janet's. Jake keeps telling us how smart Janet is, but I didn't see much evidence of that either. They both just came across as bland. Maybe it was too workaday, too ordinary- an ordinary story about ordinary people, where what appeals to me sometimes are stories with greater narrative flourish. They're both supposed to be wildly admirable people, and I guess they are, but the whole saint thing didn't work for me.
Well, it's not a bad book. It just wasn't that great. If you're interested in cystic fibrosis or a decent novels about the heroics people are willing to undergo to hang on to a lover, you'll like A Little Love Story, probably more than I did.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.