ROLAND MERULLOS VERY READABLE fourth novel casts its story far beyond the irony of the title. We all know there are no little love stories. He weaves the thread of love through a series of unexpected turns that kept this reader interested, turning the page and wanting to get to the next short chapter. Among other virtues, Merullo displays his abilities as a writer throughout. He keeps the first person narrative spare with the hint of self-depreciation. This assured honest voice tells a tender and desperate love story that moves along a swerving road. When the tale takes a turn, we lean the other way to keep our balance.
The Acknowledgements, before the novel begins, serve as a kind of prologue and give us a major clue of an element of the novel cystic fibrosis. I wondered about the wisdom of this, but the prologue leads us right into the story where Jake meets Janet after a year of mourning for a former girlfriend. The details of the romance, like the details of Jakes life, are given to the reader on a need-to-know basis, which creates a certain eagerness to know more.
Even the near-cute meeting between Jake and Janet provides a distance for the reader to watch the romance develop. In rhythmic episodes their separate lives are revealed at the same time their little love story unfolds.
Many bright shots of Boston along the way give the novel a strong feeling of place:
After the meal I said I wanted to walk to the Back Bay, my favorite part of Boston. In the 1800s it was just marshy tidal flats, but as the city grew, the area became more valuable and marshes were filled in with thousands of tons of granite from quarries in Needham. Something about the flat straight avenues lined with four- and five-story brownstones, something about the particular mix of buildings on Boylston Street, clothing stores, churches, skyscrapers, little take-out Thai and Szechwan eateries something about the beggars and businessmen, something about it just felt to me the way a city is supposed to feel edgy, busy, a visual feast.
We also get a convincing look into Jake and his professions as daytime carpenter as well as a painter who sells his canvases. The details of each of these trades go a long way toward making Jake a comfortable and authoritative narrator. We meet up and enjoy Jakes enthusiasm for his carpenter partner, Gerald, a dropout comeback father of twins someone youre grateful to have on your side. There is also Jakes strange, ailing mother (perhaps the least convincing character in the novel), and his monk brother who provides a spiritual patina to the story. Then there is Janet and her highly political job, her other love interest and her mother. All these people confront an illness seeming beyond anyones power to change. Through it all the thread of love draws the reader along.
Another important element, the mystery of Jakes previous girl friend, Giselle, is revealed nearly half way through the book one link at a time.
She wanted to start having children and I was fine with that idea. But she had a whole plan three children, a certain kind of house in the suburbs . . . Alright. Gisele had grown up poor her parents were from Brazil, actually. After she met me she started to make a lot of money and then she started to worry that if she stopped to have kids shed be poor again. But she didnt want to leave the kids and fly all over the place every few weeks. It was a big confusion for her.
In the chapter about Giselle we learn even more about Jake and Janet and watch them become closer. In fact, several love stories converge into a sense of urgency in the main story. We find ourselves at a point where all the characters need to overcome circumstances for themselves as well as the lovers. During this conclusion, the reader can ask for nothing more than to watch the story unfold.
I have skipped details because I hope you will be intrigued enough to go out and buy the book and read it. Merullo is a writer who not only writes well; he creates a unique take on our recent shared history through the narrative. He combines this with a love story that grows, a perspective on the past and an ending that left me satisfied in the way of a full and challenging day looking for more to be revealed.
Will Siegel is a writer living in Boston. He was a Volunteer with the first group of PCVs to Ethiopia.