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'Little Love Story' has fully formed characters to pull you in



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``A Little Love Story'' by Roland Merullo; Shaye Areheart ($23)

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Jake Entwhistle, carpenter and portrait painter, is at his favorite Boston doughnut shop, commemorating the end of a year of self-imposed celibacy after the death of his lover.

Out the window, he sees a very attractive young woman with a nasty cough accidentally back her car into his vintage truck. They exchange information. She's Janet Rossi, aide to the governor. Maybe it's his bashed-up truck, but she sticks in his mind, and in a few days he asks her out.

Despite a fairly disastrous first date, they end up having sex. Jake finds they have chemistry, that he likes her and she likes him. And he finds out something else as well: She's a woman living on borrowed time. She has cystic fibrosis.

He asks her out again anyway.

And so begins "A Little Love Story,'' Roland Merullo's new novel about a love story that isn't little at all. Nor is it the schmaltzfest it could have been in another writer's hands. Merullo's Jake is too quirky, too awkward - he makes dumb jokes when he's nervous that make you want to slap him upside his fictional head - and Janet is too tough, too vulnerably bold to fall into that kind of literary trap.

Merullo, best known for his books about Revere, Mass., his blue-collar hometown, once again shows his gift for drawing characters you feel that you know, and not just Jake and Janet. Jake's partner and friend, the goofy, wounded Gerard; his mother, a doctor now suffering dementia; even his brother, the former hell-raiser turned monk - you can hear their voices. They breathe from the page.

And they people a classic story. "A Little Love Story'' is about the courage people can find in themselves because love doesn't leave them much choice but to find it. And it is a story told with humor, warmth and good sex.

All that said, I had a couple of qualms. Merullo, who has straddled social class in his own life as a blue-collar kid who went to elite schools and is a successful writer, obviously has a warm place in his heart for the working class. Jake is quite believable as a human being, but not as a WASP and not because the author made him a carpenter. I'm sorry, but Jake sounds like a blue-collar guy. Jake also sounds like an older guy than we are told he is. I liked him, I liked his sensibility, but it isn't Generation X. Jake sounds like a man who has seen a lot more mileage, even with a deceased lover.

But neither quibbles are big deals.

"A Little Love Story'' is fresh, never predictable. For that reason, I decided to not divulge how Jake's former lover, Giselle, died. Many of Merullo's fans may have already read about it in pre-publication articles. I did not, and I think not knowing makes a rich reading experience even richer.

In this novel, Merullo shows he has a great ear and eye for humanity. He knows how to embrace the idiosyncratic and make full use of it. Jake and Gerard's banter is classic. So are the loving silences between Jake and Janet. There really are no wasted characters. Even the Greek Americans who run Jake's favorite coffee shop are fully fleshed. As Jake takes us through his world and through his and Janet's love story, edge meets warmth and you find yourself caring about these people and about how their story will end.

And that is not a little thing at all.

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(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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