by Kathleen O’Connor
Cheryl was a lost soul. “The invisible woman—that’s what she was,” writes O’Connor of her first novel’s heroine. “Her bosses misunderstood her. Waitresses never remembered to take her order. Husbands forgot her.” And worse. On their honeymoon, Stu, a psychiatrist, gave Cheryl a handful of Valium and told her the marriage was over. Cheryl grouses that she “had not even been allowed one solitary Saturday night to sit with her feet up and think about all those singles, still out searching.”
Drawn with O’Connor’s bemused, laconic hand, Cheryl escapes becoming yet another Cupidian casualty drowning in the secretarial pool. To bide her time and feed her postmarital fantasies, she sends bags of bubblegum (his trademark) to Richard Olsen, an ex-football hero recovering from a stroke in a nursing home. When she visits him, Olsen, usually churlish and silent, begins to talk. After a few visits, determined to be liberated from the ministrations of a nurse named Vernice (who brusquely shaves him with plastic razors she gets free with her fast-food breakfast), Richard proposes to Cheryl.
Cheryl quits her secretarial job, and she and Olsen live in the condo her emotionally estranged mother, Rose, gave her. Life with wheel-chaired Richard, who had “already developed a preference for canned food and solitude,” is hardly perfect. Just emerging from paralysis, it takes him “at least 40 strokes” to slather bread with peanut butter. But “no matter what, she was no longer single.” Rose and her new husband, Al, a bus driver almost half her age, try to help out. But when Richard shows his in-laws his newly awakened charm, O’Connor demonstrates her deftness at exposing the petty machinations that drive, or stall, a relationship. Cheryl isn’t grateful for his social graces; she’s jealous.
Just as Richard’s health improves, Cheryl gets a new job and arranges for him to be in day care. Their relationship, which had slowly progressed to one of trust and affection, slams back into that of a resentful nurse and a recalcitrant patient. Then, gradually, Cheryl matures and Richard relaxes. As their mutual dependence deepens, so does their marriage. O’Connor, 40, a corporate public-relations writer, tells her belated-coming-of-age story quietly, melting the helpless facades of her characters to expose unexpected cores of feisty determination. In the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, says her carefully fractured fairy tale, even wimps can live happily ever after. Just the way it happens in novels. (Ballantine, paper, S5.95)