Out of the Blue by Sally Mandel
(Ballantine, $23, PG) ISBN 0-345-42890-0
I pictured God feeling a little bored one morning and sifting through his files until he found my name. Oh yeah, that little jock, Annie Bolles. That flibbertigibbet who never sits still. Let’s throw a spoke in her wheel and see how she handles it.

I knew there was something amiss when my legs disappeared.

If that opening paragraph doesn’t draw you into Out of the Blue, the spectacular new novel by Sally Mandel, you might want to consider having your pulse taken to make sure you’re still alive. From the first page to the last, this novel approaches my idea of a perfect reading experience.

Anna Marie Bolles has had five years to accept her diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She figures she’s done a damn fine job of adjusting. She has moved back in with her mother, a gruff but caring woman who raised Anna by herself from the time Anna was six. Her dreams of a sports career are over, but she is content teaching high school English at a select New York City private school.

Anna is wheelchair-bound when she meets Joe Malone at a photography exhibit. Their connection is immediate and fierce, but Anna shrugs off Joe’s attempts to get her phone number or address. When she doesn’t hear from him for several months, Anna knows she did the right thing. No use investing her emotions in a romance that is doomed from the start because of her disability.

But then Joe reappears, and he’s ready to fight for Anna. He’s drawn to her wit and warmth (not to mention her beauty) but has taken the intervening months to fully analyze the long-term implications of loving someone with MS. He has concluded that he can deal with any possible obstacles. But Anna takes a lot more convincing. Even though by now she is in remission, and able to walk on her own, she thinks there must be something wrong with Joe to want a serious relationship. She never knows when she might suddenly lose some of her cognitive or muscular functions. And although MS is not fatal, and can at least partially controlled with a combination of medications, Anna doesn’t know what the future will hold. She hates the thought of being dependent on Joe and having a less than equal partnership.

The sharply defined characters in this novel keep it from becoming overly sentimental, despite the subject matter. Anna’s vibrant personality jumps out at you from the start and immediately wins you over. She’s smart-mouthed and funny, a legacy from her “accept no bullshit” mother, who fights for Anna just as much as she bullies her. Several of the teachers and students at Anna’s school also play pivotal roles in the plot.

The romance between Joe and Anna is absolutely, mouth-wateringly first rate, from the minute their eyes meet until the triumphant ending. First of all, Joe is an absolute prince, but he’s not at all perfect. He will do just about anything for Anna, but he’s not very introspective. He has this little problem expressing his emotions, thanks to his snobbish, repressive mother. But he gradually learns to open up and share more of himself through his relationship with Anna. Anna deserves happiness after the monkey wrench life has thrown her, but at the same time you can understand her genuine reservations about giving her heart to a gorgeous, successful man like Joe.

Sally Mandel hits just the right combination of humor and pathos, so the reader laughs, cries and winces all at the same time in scenes like this one, when Anna first meets Joe’s intimidating mother.

Standing there beside Joe, I began flicking my wrists violently. Sometimes that helps ward off spasms, but of course, this was the precise moment Celeste Malone chose to enter the foyer from the kitchen. She started towards us with her hand extended but stopped in her tracks as I flapped at her like some hyperactive hummingbird.

“It’s MS, actually,” I said. “I have multiple sclerosis. How do you do?…I’m sorry to be so abrupt.” Break it to them gently, was what I had counseled myself, and even then, only if you have to. Kind of like I’d dropped a Toyota on her head from ten stories up.

I liked the fact that Out of the Blue takes place five years after the initial diagnosis of MS, so that instead of a tear-jerking, hand-wringing saga we meet Anna after she has already made some sort of accommodation to her condition. But then we realize, along with Anna, that in order to accept Joe in her life, she must develop a deeper acceptance of who she is and what she can be.

As is my habit with 5-heart books, I read this novel slowly, savoring each scene and word. I hated to close the book on Joe and Anna and would love to experience the next 30 years alongside with them. I advise you to make a beeline for your favorite source of hardcover books and immerse yourself in their story. This is contemporary romance at its best.

--Susan Scribner

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