When I Fall in Love
by Iris Rainer Dart
(Morrow, $25, G) ISBN 0-688-16034-4
****
This brief but entertaining novel from the author of Beaches reads like a cross between "Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Dart knows how to tug at the heartstrings and elicit laughs along the way, but you might feel as if you just experienced a screenplay instead of a novel.

Lily Benjamin, single mother to a teenaged son, is a California success story. She has a job as a successful TV sitcom writer for "Angel's Devils," a beautiful house and a faithful housekeeper. She's engaged to a handsome, wealthy cardiologist. Her son, Bryan, goes to the best private school and has aspirations of attending college on a tennis scholarship.

But the death of her mentor, head writer Harry Green, signals the beginning of a shocking period for Lily. Her housekeeper, fearing the wrath of her abusive husband, suddenly quits and disappears. The new head writer for "Angel's Devils" is Charlie Roth, the "God of Jokes." While he may be good for the show, he's nothing but trouble for Lily.

A cerebral palsy victim, Charlie is abrasive, totally tactless and seemingly unfeeling as well. He mocks Lily's heart-shaped engagement ring despite Lily's explanation that it symbolizes her fiancé's profession ("Good thing he's not a urologist," Charlie deadpans). When Charlie is not around, Lily and her co-workers make fun of his misshapen body and awkward movements.

Then Lily's world really comes crashing down. The housekeeper's violent husband confronts Lily at her home, demanding to know the whereabouts of his wife. In the ensuing confrontation, Bryan is shot. He is left a paraplegic, his young life unequivocally altered. At first, as he recovers in the hospital, Bryan lies hopeless and depressed. Lily's support and encouragement do nothing to lift him from his funk. Help arrives from a surprising source – Charlie Roth, who knows a few things about living life with a disability. His no-nonsense approach and his ability to laugh at himself finally make an impression on Bryan – and on Lily as well, who begins to wonder if there's a diamond in the rough there (and not a heart-shaped one, either). But part of her yearns for the perfect life she could have with her perfect fiancé, and another part of her wonders if she is only starting to imagine she has feelings for Charlie because she is grateful for his help.

The plot doesn't contain any surprises, but Dart's strength is the dialogue and dynamics among her characters and the humor she instills in the process. A former comedy writer herself, she knows how to set up a scene for a punchline. And she knows how to write a shamelessly corny climax that combines several of Hollywood's greatest romantic moments.

Dart glosses over one important aspect, Lily's attraction to Charlie. Sure, she falls in love with his humor and the wonderful human being behind the gruff exterior, but she avoids any discussion of how Lily feels about a physical relationship with the man. Also, while Lily and Bryan face many hurdles, financial worries are not among them. Lily is fortunate that she has enough money to afford the best medical and rehab care, not to mention the remodeling of her home to make it wheelchair accessible. It would have been a little more realistic to show her facing some of the bureaucratic and monetary struggles that many families with a disabled child encounter, but then I guess that wouldn't be much like Hollywood, would it?

The bottom line is that I imagine the film rights to this novel have already been sold, as it reads like a very entertaining and romantic screenplay. I recommend that you find this one at your local library or borrow it from a friend. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll want popcorn.

--Susan Scribner


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