PS, I Love You
by Cecelia Ahern
Published by HarperCollins
424 pages, 2004
On A Night Like This
by Ellen Sussman
Published by Warner Books
320 pages, 2004
Playing the Heartstrings
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
Mining the depths of mortal illness, human despair and suffering for fictional gold is not a new idea. Depending on where you stand, you could even say it began with the Bible, was brought to high art by Tolstoy milked for humor by Dickens and brought into the 21st century by a phalanx of authors too thick to name individually.
Two debut novels published early in 2004 hit this mine with varying degrees of success. One, from this reviewer's position at any rate, is a crashing bore but a commercial triumph. The other the opposite on both counts. Both deal with death and dying and the journey the survivors of loss must make to get on with their own business of living.
The international publishing community opened their arms to newcomer Cecelia Ahern and her first novel PS, I Love You. Her two book deal was negotiated in the United Kingdom, with handsome deals following in the United States, Germany, Italy, Finland, Greece, Japan, Korea, Iceland, Brazil, Spain and others. A film version -- by Warner Brothers, no less -- was in pre-production before the book hit the stores. The kind of attention PS, I Love You got from the starting gate is the stuff bestsellers are made of. Unfortunately nothing about PS, I Love You lives up to the advance praise. It is soapy, sappy and inexpertly crafted. The book's author, however, is the exquisitely photogenic daughter of Ireland's prime minister. That's the sort of pedigree that can give a book legs. It seems to have worked here.
PS, I Love You opens on 20-something Holly, mourning the recent loss of her husband, Gerry, to a brain tumor. Holly, who lives in Dublin, is gobsmacked: the plans she'd made for her future all had Gerry in them.
Gerry was gone and he would never be back. That was the reality. She would never again run her fingers through his soft hair, never share a secret joke across the table at a dinner party. ... All that was left was a bundle of memories, and an image of his face that became more and more vague each day.
After his death -- and just when she's feeling that she really won't be able to cope with his loss -- she receives a package that contains 10 sealed notes from Gerry, "each with a different month written on them." There is one for every month left in the year. And each note contains a message seemingly intended to help Holly get on with her life and which possibly even eased Gerry's own mind while he prepared himself for the inevitable.
PS, I Love You is a sunny, happy book written by a 22-year-old so it's really not a spoiler to say that, by the time the book closes, Holly has read each note in sequence when she's supposed to, has followed all of Gerry's instructions (plus gone on a vacation, which he planned and purchased) and is well on her way to healing up nicely.
There's nothing really wrong with PS, I Love You, but there's nothing really right with it, either. It lacks texture and feeling and depth. All right, I'll say it: it lacks maturity. And should that be surprising? I don't think so. Expecting a 22-year-old to bring nuance -- not to mention just plain new -- to this topic is just silly. It's possible that Cecelia Ahern will mature into a very good writer. For the moment, however, she'll have to be satisfied with just being a very well paid one. Maybe she'll be able to tough it out.
On the other hand Ellen Sussman's carefully crafted On A Night Like This is a pleasant surprise; especially taking the topic into consideration. Blair Clemens is an ex-hippie chick living in contemporary San Francisco, she is a struggling single mom who is a dying of a melanoma so convincingly described, you're checking your own moles before the end of the book. On A Night Like This is marked by Blair's relationship with Luke Bellingham, a high school acquaintance who has been assigned the task of tracking Blair down, and with Blair's daughter, Amanda:
Blair watched her daughter. She somehow felt she could see Amanda in all her transformations -- she was the joyous five-year-old, the headstrong eight-year-old, the surly twelve-year-old, and now, this lovely young woman -- in a flash of an eye. Even now, with a tattoo peeking above her tank top, she was Blair's baby. A few months ago, Amanda had come home with ROVE tattooed on her chest, just below her collarbone. Blair used to think she knew her daughter completely, knew every expression, every gesture. Rove? What did it mean? Was this Amanda's first hint of mystery?
Luke and Blair come together at an unlikely point in their lives. Blair is contemplating the end of her allotted time, largely concerned about her daughter's precarious future without her mom.
Luke is recovering from a failed marriage, coming to terms with the fact that the failure was more his fault than his wife's and that, though he didn't see it coming, he had a larger hand in the unraveling of his marriage than he at first thought.
By rights, the tenuous thing that springs up between Luke and Blair shouldn't work at all. It's a testament to Sussman's narrative skill that it does. It works, and more. On A Night Like This is never maudlin and seldom even sad. In fact, the opposite is true. Sussman takes all of these endings and transitions and weaves what is ultimately a beautiful and even uplifting tale. On A Night Like This is Sussman's first novel. It seems certain it won't be her last. | June 2004
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.