Hippo Manchester
August 18, 2005

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A Little Love Story, by Roland Melullo, Shaye Areheart Books, 2005, 288 pages.

by Michelle Saturley

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a fan of romance novels. Nor, in most cases, am I a fan of the pseudo-literary love story. Nicholas Sparks and the rest of his ilk do nothing for me. It’s your basic chick-lit wolf, dressed in sensitive male sheep’s clothing.

So why, after reading the first few chapters of A Little Love Story, did I find myself drawn to these two people? Why, as I lay in bed that evening after devouring half the book, did I find myself actually worrying about the two lovers at the center of this book, hoping they would be OK?

The answer to that question is easy: this isn’t your average chick-lit love story.

The story is set in Boston. Jake, a medical school dropout-turned-carpenter who moonlights as a portrait painter, meets Janet, an attractive political assistant for the governor, when she accidentally backs her car into his antique truck in a donut shop parking lot. When he meets Janet, he notices two things about her. One is that she seems to be getting over a nasty cold. The other is that she is very attractive. Since this is the first time in a year that Jake has found a woman attractive, he throws caution to the wind and asks her out.

Jake soon learns that Janet isn’t just getting over a bad chest cold. She has cystic fibrosis, which, as she puts it, doesn’t exactly make her “a long-term investment.” She’s 27 years old, which places her at the tail end of the average life span of a person with CF. Jake, however, is undeterred and continues to pursue her.

Okay, so you’re probably already thinking of another famous Love Story, the Ryan O’Neal-Ali McGraw vehicle. And this story is similar, insomuch as the leading lady is terminally ill, but that’s about as far as the comparison goes. These aren’t two fresh-faced college kids, full of idealism about love and fate and all the rest. These are two adults, with heartaches and fears and defense mechanisms and baggage all their own. As it turns out, a degenerative terminal illness is only one of the problems this couple faces.

Janet confesses that she has been carrying on an affair with the recently-divorced governor. She’s not proud of it, and offers to stop seeing him if things start getting serious with Jake. Meanwhile, Jake is still nursing the pain of losing his fiancée in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. His fiancée was in the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field — and, as Jake found out later, her secret lover was on board with her. Jake has a hard time letting go of the jealousy he feels about Janet’s relationship with the governor, even after she breaks it off.

Then there’s Jake’s fear of losing yet another woman he loves — this time to a disease. His medical background is enough for him to understand that the situation for his new love is grim. The last half of the book is devoted to Jake and Janet trying to spend as much time together as they can, getting to know each other before it’s over — and a mad dash by Jake, unbeknownst to Janet, to try to save her life.

What makes this story work is the author’s straightforward storytelling. It helps, I think, that it’s told from a man’s point of view. It also helps that the man at the center of this story is a real man — not a stereotypical macho man or a wishy-washy romance novel hero. He’s a man with flaws, humor, intelligence, insecurities and hope. There’s no sappy internal dialogue, no melodrama. And with a story this sad, there doesn’t need to be.

Roland Merullo will be at Porter Sqaure Books in Cambridge, Mass., at 7 p.m. Aug. 22; Borders Books in Braintree, Mass., at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 24; and Andover Bookstore in Andover, Mass., at 7 p.m. Sept. 15. For other events on his tour, see www.randomhouse.com.