Out of the Blue

Heart and Soul by Sally Mandel
(Ballantine, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-345-42892-7
Sally Mandelís 2001 release, Out of the Blue, is arguably the best book Iíve read in five years of reviewing for The Romance Reader. The robust characters, the lively dialogue, and the lyrical writing style - not to mention the luscious love story - all contributed to the novelís becoming one of my all-time favorite keepers. As a follow-up, Heart and Soul doesnít disappoint, but it is more bittersweet than its predecessor. The back-cover endorsement from Jennifer Crusie is a sign of Mandelís ability to utilize humor, but the Luanne Rice and Kristin Hannah recommendations should warn prospective readers that any tears shed will be two parts sadness to one part laughter.

Mandel typically jump-starts her books. Right from page one, the first person narrative from Bess Stallone (no relation) hooks the reader and reels her in:

When I turned eleven, my major goal was to grow bigger breasts than Pauline Sabatino. At that point, I could still ignore my need for music, and what was definitely not on my list was the notion of performing in Carnegie Hall with the great David Montagnier in front of 2,802 people, not counting standing room. If you had told me it was going to happen, I would have said you had your head stuck someplace where the sun didnít shine and we all would have had a good laugh, except for Pauline who didnít know what Carnegie Hall was.

Heart and Soul tells the story of how Bess takes the improbable journey from ďa crummy neighborhood in Nassau County, Long Island to a world-famous two-piano partnership.Ē Bess is like most of the other kids in her blue-collar, Italian neighborhood, except that she hears piano music in her head and pines for Vladimir Horowitz instead of Billy Joel. Discovered at age 11 by her school music teacher, she practices furiously on her rickety piano ďAmadoofusĒ to catch up. Eventually she is accepted into Julliard but never quite fits in with the other wealthy, refined students.

But Bess has a more serious problem than social differences. A brilliant pianist, but terrified of performing, Bess either faints or throws up (or both) at her recitals. So when she finishes Julliard, she continues studying piano but assumes she has no future role in the music business beyond teacher or accompanist.

Then David Montagnier, a handsome, charming Frenchman and world-renowned pianist, approaches Bess and informs her that he needs a new partner for his demanding two-piano repertoire and she is his top choice. Incredulous doesnít begin to describe Bessí reaction, but David is serious. He is determined to cure Bess of her stage fright and uncover the talented performer that lies deep inside her. Bess, in love with David within minutes of their first meeting, reluctantly agrees to work with him. She also warns him that his own reputation and career could be put at risk by her affliction. But Bess doesnít realize that David has demons of his own. Even after ďMontagnier and StalloneĒ are headlining concerts all over the world, even after Bessí dreams of winning Davidís love have come true, there are enormous obstacles facing the pair that may forever rob Bess of her music.

For anyone who remembers their childhood piano lessons with any fondness, Heart and Soul is required reading. Woven throughout the novel is musicís power to communicate feelings and to transform the ordinary into something transcendent. When Bess and David play together, theyíre declaring their love as clearly as if they had spoken out loud. When Bess temporarily loses her ability to play, itís as if the whole world has been stripped of its color. Her happy ending is less about finding the right man than about finding her way back to the music.

Itís easy to root for Bess, whose wit, compassion, honesty and strength are all apparent from the first chapter. In addition to overcoming feelings of inadequacy because of her blue-collar background, she also has to cope with a bitter, angry father who belittles her talents and actively sabotages her career. But fortunately she finds support from her two best friends, her younger sister, and her fatherís coworker.

These characters are all sharply defined. Unfortunately, I canít say the same about David Montagnier. Maybe it was because I suspected he was too good to be true, but I felt distanced from him throughout the novel. His difficult childhood as a musical prodigy is alluded to but not fully explored. I experienced his suffering primarily through its effect on Bess, not for his own sake.

I read the last five chapters of the novel over five separate nights, wanting to prolong my involvement with Bess Stallone (no relation) and her music. Itís in my To-Be-Read pile already because I know that revisiting the story may be even more rewarding the second time around; cues and symbols will be even more meaningful when I knew where the plot is heading. And I wonít even mind crying all over again.

--Susan Scribner

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