A LITTLE LOVE STORY

By Roland Merullo

Shaye Areheart. 272 pp. $23

It's routine these days to praise fiction writers for being original, but what about the novelist who ventures into conventional territory without stepping on exploding cliches? Roland Merullo is that quietly intrepid kind of author; his best-known book is probably In Revere, in Those Days (2002), an unabashedly sentimental coming-of-age novel. In it, Merullo skillfully maneuvered some familiar themes -- working-class aspirations in suburban New England, the tension between Old World values and modern culture, the solace of extended family during a time of mourning -- into a narrative distinguished by acuity and compassion.

With his fifth novel, Merullo seeks to revitalize a thoroughly worn-out plot convention: the terminal-illness romance. Set once again in Boston and its environs, and again accentuating moments of cheer in the face of grief, A Little Love Story introduces Jake Entwhistle, a thirtyish carpenter and aspiring painter whose girlfriend, Giselle, was one of the passengers on Flight 93, the airplane that crashed near Shanksville, Pa., on Sept. 11, 2001. It has now been a year since Giselle's death, and when Jake decides to mark the anniversary by treating himself to a doughnut, he meets another doomed young woman, to whom he is immediately attracted.

A smart, pretty 27-year-old who works as a public-relations assistant in the Massachusetts governor's office, Janet Rossi appears to be suffering from a nasty cold during her first date with Jake. But as they grow acquainted, Janet discloses that her illness is not contagious: It's cystic fibrosis, in its last stages, and she is determined to grab some happiness before the disease closes in.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his recent experience with loss and mourning, Jake declares himself willing to accompany Janet on whatever adventures might be left her. They make several autumn forays out of town: to New York, her favorite city, and to Connecticut to visit Jake's brother, a renegade monk. But Janet's illness and the demands of her job -- the governor is campaigning for re-election -- usually keep her confined to Boston, where she is forced to make frequent trips to the hospital.

Although Janet resists being patronized as a terminal patient, Merullo shows how her days are shaped by the recurring cycles of crisis, recovery, hope and despair that overwhelm the life of a very ill person. These events, narrated by Jake with matter-of-fact calm, never seem manipulative or false. Instead, they highlight Janet's courage. "Every morning," Jake confides, "I could see that bravery in her because all through the night she had been a step or two this side of suffocation . . . . Not once, not just one awful time, but night after night . . . . Not one annual invasive procedure, but dozens of them -- bronchoscopies, enemas, throat cultures, sinus irrigations, shunts, IVs, pinpricks, blood tests, intestinal surgeries -- from the time she was old enough to hold her head up without help."

A Little Love Story manages remarkably often to escape the claustrophobia of "hospital time, that strange, slow wash of quarter-hours where you feel cut off from the rhythm of the rest of the world." There are excursions into the lives of a large number of supporting characters, including Jake's mother, a former physician now stricken with dementia; Gov. Valvelsais, once an idealist, now a "clean-faced millionaire with a plastic smile," with whom Janet has an intimate and complicated relationship; Gerard, Jake's best friend and carpentry partner; Janet's father, whose despair over his daughter's condition may have led to his death when she was 14; and Jake's ghostly former girlfriend, Giselle.

There is plenty of humor, too. Merullo has a graceful way with dialogue, allowing his characters' wit -- sometimes caustic, sometimes sweet -- to unfold naturally. There is even some slapstick, as when Jake and the governor battle for Janet's affection by wrestling on the statehouse carpet.

Readers of a certain age may be reminded here of Erich Segal's iconic 1970 bestseller, Love Story, with its Boston setting and beautifully dying heroine. Long before the disease-of-the-week theme became a staple of popular culture, Segal's book had a similarly droll irreverence, despite its memorable missteps: Nobody in Merullo's novel would ever say anything as dopey as "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Merullo, in fact, makes dazzlingly few missteps here. For all its sadness, his narrative is never maudlin; for all its familiarity, it's never trite. No tears are jerked in the delivery of this solidly satisfying little romance, whose author is something of a Houdini in the art of escaping banality. *

Donna Rifkind reviews regularly for Book World.