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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Love in the ruins Love in the ruins (March 03, 2004)

Novelist writes poignant story of love during difficulties
"On a Night Like This," by Ellen Sussman; Warner Books; 290 pp.; $23.95

by Don Kazak

Finding love can be difficult in the best of personal times, but it can be an unexpected redemption in the most difficult of times.

That's the main theme of "On a Night Like This," a first novel by Ellen Sussman of Los Altos Hills, who has previously published short stories.

In the story, Blair, a San Francisco single mom with cancer, meets a long-lost high school classmate, Luke, who had looked her up as part of a school reunion effort.

In high school they didn't talk much, but were intrigued by one another.

Blair is a chef at a San Francisco restaurant who likes going to bed with men she meets in bars but is afraid of real intimacy because of something that happened to her long ago.

She's wisecracking and funny, self-demeaning and courageous, but, then again, we only meet her after she hears the bad news from her doctor.

She was a weird kid, Luke tells her later, keeping her distance from classmates, listening to her own drum, dressing oddly. For San Francisco, that's saying something.

Amanda, her 16-year old daughter, has many of the same traits, is odd, funny and smart, and recluse. The mother-daughter bond gets stretched and redefined by Blair's illness.

Luke was the class success among the high school peers, an Oscar-winning Hollywood screenwriter who has been hiding out in his cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his dog for the previous three months, living like a hermit.

His beautiful, younger wife has walked out on him with no warning and no forwarding address. So he has stopped writing and builds furniture in his workshop.

These are people with issues, as they say, but Blair has the biggest one of all.

"On a Night Like This" revolves around four relationships: Blair with her daughter, Blair with Luke, Luke with his estranged wife, and, the most difficult of all, Luke with the young and very resentful Amanda.

The writing, especially the dialogue is crisp and revealing.

How many parents have had a moment of epiphany like this, with Blair thinking to herself about her daughter: "She looked like she was about a minute away from becoming a woman, having her shed her child's body only seconds before."

Children who are wise beyond their years are still children, emotionally. Blair has the difficult task of getting her daughter ready to accept her own pending death. All of that is complicated by Blair's growing relationship with Luke, which Amanda resents.

There is a push to look for new cures, to defeat the onslaught of the cancer spreading in Blair's body, talk of going to Mexico for some experimental treatment.

Blair seems to reject all of those suggestions, being more or less resigned to her illness.

This is a story that could have been written to excess but is instead understated, with all the main characters a little tentative, a little confused.

How does one react when a doctor says, well, that's probably it. Does the world look differently, do we act differently, do we become other people? Yes, yes and yes, at least in this case.

Amanda, as the girl becoming a woman, has the greatest distance to go but seems built for it, with a sassy independence that must have been passed on by her mother.

"On a Night Like This" is a touching story of people reacting to difficulty, to each other, and to love, each being changed by circumstances and by each other.

It cuts to the heart of what people mean to each other.

In that way, Sussman has written a book that resonates in the warmer places in our hearts. Don Kazak can be e-mailed at dkazak@paweekly.com


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