A Little Love Story
By Roland Merullo
Shaye Areheart, 272 pp., $23
This is a book that shouldn't work. It takes place over a brief four-month period, during which the characters navigate a crowded obstacle course of dire topics -- cystic fibrosis, sexual harassment, Alzheimer's disease, lingering grief over Sept. 11. The question isn't whether or not this is all too much. Life, unfortunately, sometimes dishes out this much and more. But the novelist has a responsibility to make you believe his characters are reacting to extraordinary pressure in ways that people really do react. If an anvil falls on a character's head, and that character is walking around unscathed in the next chapter, then you're watching a cartoon, not engaging with a novel.
Roland Merullo's characters, however, don't walk around unscathed. They've been shaped by the rough times they've been through, and their reactions in the present reflect the things that happened to them in the past. They are cranky and idiosyncratic, people of intelligence and real feeling. The book works because you care about them.
Jake Entwhistle, a Boston artist and carpenter, doesn't get around much anymore. He's still numb from the sudden death of his girlfriend a year ago, and he's terrified of risking love, and its attendant possibility of loss, again. Yet on the night when he's decided to mark the end of his year of mourning by going out for a doughnut, he meets Janet Rossi, who is smart, independent, beautiful -- and almost certainly dying.
Jake doesn't recognize the dying part at first, however. There's an edgy, awkward, elated, sexually charged first date. There's a goofy it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time decision to take a stolen Boston University crew shell out on the Charles River at midnight. There's a near-arrest by police, and a wet ride back to Jake's apartment. And then there is surprisingly passionate, powerful sex. Through it all, Janet coughs, loudly and violently. Jake keeps gauging his attraction to her by noticing how little he minds the idea of catching whatever terrible cold or bronchitis she has. Finally, he asks, and she tells him what it is she does have: cystic fibrosis.
In the weeks that follow, everything intensifies, fast. Jake and Janet fall in love. She meets his mother, a retired doctor with Alzheimer's, and his brother, who used to be reckless but is now a recluse, a monk living alone in a cabin in the woods. Jake and Janet take a couple of road trips together, including one that is both a pilgrimage to the place where his ex-girlfriend died and an exorcism of his bitter memories of her. They wrestle with the jealousy each has about the other's former lovers. This jealousy coexists, in a very real way, with many layers of feeling: a pragmatic understanding that of course the other person has a past; a need to be reassured that the past doesn't matter; and a deep conviction that it truly doesn't matter, because of the unprecedented strength of what they're feeling together, now. Then Janet's medical condition worsens. She is hospitalized, barely able to breathe, nearing the end of the expected life span for someone with her condition. Jake is determined to do whatever it takes to save her life, even though everyone else, including Janet, believes that her death is imminent.
All this is happening in a world that both is, and isn't, real. Merullo sets his story in Boston, during the fall of 2002 -- but his fictional Massachusetts isn't in the hands of Jane Swift, who, odd as it may seem now (or even seemed back then), was actually governing the state at the time. Instead, Merullo gives us Governor Charles Valvelsais, a model of good grooming and bad behavior, a self-serving sleaze who is Janet's boss and also her vindictive former lover. Instead of the real political scandal of the day -- which involved Mitt Romney criticizing Shannon O'Brien's conduct during a debate -- Merullo has the enraged, spurned Valvelsais ripping Janet's dress and then having his nose bloodied by Jake as they engage in hand-to-hand combat in the State House. The world of the novel is not the world of cartoon, or soap opera, or surreal black comedy, but it's not quite the real world, either. It is a kind of feverish parallel universe where everything moves fast: time, the deepening of romance into love, and, most of all, the implacable approach of death.
What is real here, heightened by the breathless pace, is the emotional trajectory. Merullo does a gorgeous job of rendering naked emotion; it's never slobbery, just frank. Jake and Janet are so believable and appealing in their reactions to each other that when the plot goes a bit wild toward the end, you are sucked right into Jake's desperation and willing to believe the lengths he eventually goes to in order to enlist other people as allies to save Janet.
In Merullo's memoir, ''Revere Beach Elegy," he tells the story of his father, who decided at age 50 to go to law school and then endured the humiliation and sorrow of failing the bar exam over and over and over before he finally passed it. This kind of determination and dignity animates Jake and Janet too. They are underdogs in the sense that fate has stacked the deck against them, but they're also shamelessly heroic in that this burden affects them very deeply and at the same time not at all.
Joan Wickersham is the author of ''The Paper Anniversary." She lives in Cambridge.