I have read a number of category romances and stories which deal with paraplegic heroes and I have usually admired the authors for tackling such a difficult topic. These tales usually have two components in common. First, the plot centers on the heroine’s helping the hero come to terms with his disability. Second, the books don’t make a big deal
about the realities of the hero’s condition nor do they show the community of paraplegics or the support network that exists among those who share this life-altering condition. Fay Robinson’s new novel succeeds so well because she provides a very different take on these two common approaches to romances with a paraplegic hero.
John “Mac” McCandless, has already come to terms with his disability when the story begins. We get some sense of the struggle he has undergone and we see the doubts and uncertainties that of necessity must plague him, but for the most part Mac has accepted that he will never walk again, that he can never engage in normal sexual relations, that he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Such acceptance obviously did not come easily; Mac was a college track coach and an active man before he was shot when he intervened to try to help a woman who was being attacked. But he has put his life together, has become Athletic Director of Courtland University, and now coaches wheelchair athletes.
Perhaps his own hard journey to acceptance is one reason Mac agrees to help Keely Wilson when she asks him to oversee her rehabilitation. Keely was the best female track star Mac ever coached. After she left Courtland seven years earlier, she went on to track stardom as one of the best women marathoners in the world. Having won the silver medal at Atlanta, her goal is to go for the gold in Sydney. Then a reckless driver runs a stop sign and Keely’s dream is shattered. Her doctors and therapists have told her that she will never race again, but Keely refuses to accept their evaluation. If only Mac will help her, she is convinced that she can regain her old form.
Mac knows from the outset that her quest is probably impossible; he also knows that she needs time to recover emotionally. But his decision has other roots. He had loved Keely from afar while she at Courtland and the old feelings have not died. So Keely returns to her alma mater and to Mac.
Keely had not known of Mac’s condition and thus is devastated when she finds him in a wheelchair. She had been more than a little in love with her coach and reacts with shock and horror when she discovers he is a paraplegic. Much of the story deals with Keely’s coming to terms with the fact that Mac is still a man she can love.
Keely is, at first glance, a more problematic and less attractive character. Her single-minded determination to race again seems foolish. But Robinson shows us clearly why she feels as she does. Indeed, her tunnel vision and her seeming self-absorption are undoubtedly characteristic of any world-class athlete, as is her inability to see herself as anything but a runner. Keely also has some unfinished business with her mother and father to deal with, which helps us understand her better and to be more sympathetic about her obsession with running again.
Robinson describes Mac’s and Keely’s developing romance in a realistic and compelling fashion. She does not downplay the difficulties that the two face, yet she convinces us that these can be overcome.
Equally effective is Robinson’s portrayal of the world of paraplegics. By including Mac’s best friend Alan, also confined to a wheelchair, and Alan’s wife, Vicki, we see the dark humor that helps the “crips” (as they call themselves among friends), deal with a sometimes unfriendly world. We come to appreciate the determination of the “wheelers,” those who race in wheelchairs, to compete and to demonstrate that even without legs, they are still world-class athletes.
A Man Like Mac is a most impressive debut novel. It is both romantic and realistic. Mac has to be one of the most truly heroic heroes I have encountered in a long time. I was moved by this book because it is such a wonderful affirmation of the strength of the human spirit and the power of love.