If Only It Were True by Marc Levy
(Pocket, $22.95, G) ISBN 0-7434-0617-6
*
As I read If Only It Were True, I kept thinking, "If only this novel had been written by someone else" -- namely, a female romance author. The plot had the potential to be extremely romantic, but unfortunately first-time French novelist Marc Levy was not able to build interesting characters or dialogue around the idea.

Here's the simple yet tantalizing synopsis: Lauren Kline, a medical resident, finally gets some time off from her grueling schedule and starts off on a drive from her San Francisco home down the coast to Monterey. Then her car engine malfunctions, causing a crash that leaves Lauren in a seemingly irreversible coma.

Five months later, talented architect Arthur is taking stock of his new San Francisco apartment when he is shocked to find a woman living in his closet who claims to be the not-quite-dead Lauren. Her body still lies comatose in the hospital, but Lauren can drift through the city, unseen by other people. She's chosen her former apartment as her favorite resting place. For some reason, Arthur can see Lauren perfectly, although he refuses at first to believe her fantastic story. Gradually he realizes that the truth, though bizarre, is the only way to explain Lauren's presence. But as Arthur and Lauren grow closer, medical decisions are being made that could put an abrupt end to Lauren's life in limbo, and the couple have to race against time to protect Lauren's corporeal self.

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? Can't you just imagine the romantic tear-jerker that a talented author like Kristin Hannah or Luanne Rice could create? Well, forget it. If Only It Were True is lacking in almost everything that makes a romantic novel successful.

First of all, the reader never gets to know Lauren before she becomes a semi-ghost -- she's in a coma by page 11 of the novel. In her new incarnation, she's closer to angel than ghost -- beautiful, intelligent, wise, and prone to pontificating in hackneyed sentimental paragraphs about the need for people to appreciate every moment of their lives. Several of her lectures seemed familiar, and I realized that I had already read one of them -- about how each of us has a bank account called time, and that if we don't "spend" all of the time wisely, it's lost forever -- in one of those chain e-mails that urges you to share the message with five friends that you love (or want to annoy). That's not a character, it's a greeting card.

Arthur doesn't get much more of a personality than Lauren, although at least he's allowed to interact with other people. But he too orates, narrates and generally engages in other dramatic monologue techniques -- he rarely has a moment of genuine conversation with anyone else. The single exception is when he banters with his friend and business partner, Paul, who is understandably concerned about Arthur's seemingly irrational behavior. Their scenes together are actually fairly humorous, but they are poorly integrated with the romanticism of the rest of the story -- as if Adam Sandler had wandered into the denouement of The English Patient.

Levy bounces the story's point of view around among Lauren, Arthur and several other minor characters, some of whom only appear in one scene. The result is that the story reads like a fable narrated from a distance, which limits even more the reader's ability to become involved.

If Only It Were True was originally published in Levy's native language, French. Maybe it lost something in translation. The back cover notes that foreign rights to this allegedly "captivating tale that evokes the essence of romance and our boundless capacity to believe" have been sold in 28 countries. I hope it translates better to Swahili or Russian than it does to English. Don't waste your money on these disappointing 200 pages, or you might find yourself saying, "If only I had chosen something else!"

--Susan Scribner


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