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Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Ellen Sussman's On A Night Like This

Let's hear a few sniffles for the Women's Weepie. You know the genre: stacked high at your local mega-chain, conveniently close to the Child Care and Self Help sections, one step up from the pulp romance.

The Weepie always stars a headstrong, independent woman, a brooding, lonely man, and underneath their prickly exteriors, True Love begins to develop...but wait, there is an obstacle to this love. A difficult child, perhaps, or a fatal illness. What will they do?

Local writer Ellen Sussman's debut novel On A Night Like This follows proudly in this direction. Oprah will probably tab it for her book club, and the movie version starring either Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts won't be far behind. Beloved by many, but snorted at by those who fancy themselves intellectual, it may, like so many other books of its ilk, never leave the gilded ghetto of Women's Fiction.

This is unfortunate. At first glance On A Night Like This is just another heartstring-plucking saga of a self-sacrificing single mother "learning to confront loss in order to find love" (as the back cover blurb helpfully explains). But Sussman pays homage to the women's-weepie genre without becoming victim to its pitfalls, skirting the edges of melodrama without ever falling all the way in. Call it a meta-weepie. It rolls its eyes at itself.

First, the star-crossed lovers: the Headstrong Woman is Blair Clemens, a chef and single mom of a teenage daughter. They live in a one-room in-law cottage in the Haight-Ashbury, fiercely independent but reeling after Blair has been diagnosed with advanced melanoma. Cue the Brooding, Lonely Man: Luke Bellingham, once a successful screenwriter, wealthy, but currently unshaven and near-deranged with heartbreak over the breakup of his marriage.

Not so deranged, of course, that he can't help his high school alumni organization by tracking down "lost souls" in preparation for their reunion. Luke calls Blair, the girl he never knew except in whispered rumors, the working-class girl on scholarship at their preppy private school, the girl who has haunted him for years.

It's no big shocker that Luke and Blair eventually fall in love despite the obstacles, such as Blair's close relationship with her oddball teenage daughter Amanda who has "no friends, no boyfriends, no world outside her mother, her school work, her jobs."

This closeness leads to trouble, too dishy to reveal here, when Luke tries to curry favor with Amanda to woo Blair. "How could the best thing in my life, Blair thought, Become the worst thing in my life? My daughter."

The book unfortunately is peppered with such italicized thoughts, as if Sussman didn't trust her own skill and wanted to be extra sure the reader wasn't confused. (This reader wasn't.) Hopefully she won't find them necessary in her next book.

Also impeding the love is Luke's lingering feelings for the wife who walked out, and of course the hovering cloud of Blair's inevitable illness. Add to this another dozen twists and turns, complete with mistaken identities and long-buried secrets, a pregnancy of dubious paternity and unsolved crimes from decades past, and you have a great popcorn book.

Unlike most books (and films, for that matter) set in San Francisco, the city of On a Night Like This is a believable, breathing character, not a latte-and-Victorian fantasy. Characters live in plausibly modest apartments nowhere near Alamo Square. At one point, the hapless Luke tries to stake out his estranged wife's new home, but his career as a stalker is cut short because he can't find a parking spot in Noe Valley. This may be a first: a book set in San Francisco with an authentic parking scene.

What saves this material from running too treacly is Sussman's witty dialogue and fully drawn characters (the stereotyped Gay Best Friend is an unfortunate exception). Blair strikes one as the sort of woman who would snort derisively at romantic, sad stories. In fact, she's quite chagrined to find herself in the middle of one. To break the news of her illness to her daughter, she says: "I had a mole removed from my back and it might be cancer. It is cancer. They already did the tests. I'm screwed. We're screwed."

Sussman also avoids the obvious heart-rending scenes: no devastating news is delivered at the doctor's office, no one suffers nobly at the hospital bedside, nor does the book end in any of the ways one might expect a novel about a woman with cancer to end. It is neither an operatic tragedy or a sunny romance: it is a Women's Weepie about people like you and me. Now be a dear and pass me that box of Kleenex.

On A Night Like This
by Ellen Sussman
Warner Books; ISBN: 0446531413
Hardcover: 320 pages (February 2004)