When I Fall In Love by Iris Rainer Dart. Avon Books, 1999. Paperback, 345 pages. $6.99. Order this book -- print, cassette or large print.
Summertime -- and the reading is easy, to paraphrase the old jazz standard. It's hot, humid, and hazy. All you want to do is roll into a patch of shade with a cold drink. The dog days of summer are no time to catch up on heavy-duty movement reading; even ardent crips need a vacation. So why a book review column in July? Is there "beach reading" for us?
Yes, there is -- and it's cooler than most anything else you'll come across this summer. When I Fall In Love by Iris Rainer Dart is a real find. Whoever would have thought that there would one day be a mass-market paperback romance novel that not only gets crip culture right but (honest to God) celebrates it?
Like many of you, I'd have bet my bank account on the odds of this ever happening in mainstream publishing. Tired of literary stereotypes and popular culture supercrips, I tend to shy away (well, OK, I run screaming in the other direction) from popular books with a disability theme. Most of the time they serve only to reinforce those stereotypes and glorify the inspirational. Rarely does a book come along like Anne Finger's Bone Truth, featuring disabled characters in realistic, positive ways. When it does, the author is invariably, like Finger, disabled.
But Iris Rainer Dart, the author of a number of light romantic fictions, is nondisabled. Why did she do this, then -- and how come she did it so well? Let's call it a matter of family connections. Look closely at her last name. Ring a bell? Check out the book's dedication čto the author's brother-in-law, Justin Dart, Jr. Having a long-time disability rights activist in one's family can't hurt when it comes to understanding disability culture. If you're Iris Rainer Dart, you transform that personal understanding into a mass market paperback.
When I Fall In Love is standard romance fare, but a cut above average. Dart's cast of characters is what one might expect: there's the lovely heroine Lily, a hard-working television sitcom scriptwriter, engaged to Mark, a cardiologist whose expectations of love and marriage would have fitted neatly into an "Ozzie and Harriet" episode. The pair seem headed for marital bliss until real life intervenes. Bryan, Lily's teenage son from a previous marriage, gets a spinal cord injury from gunfire. To further complicate matters, Lily's new boss, Charlie, is a wisecracking, dead-on-target guy who has cerebral palsy.
What's a working girl like Lily to do when hit with all this disability? Not what you might expect in this genre. Lily observes, absorbs, and understands crip culture. And the readers who go on this journey with Lily learn as much as she does.
Think about it, Ragged Edge readers: The vast majority of people who pluck When I Fall In Love off the bookstore shelf will be nondisabled. Before they know what's hit 'em, they will be served a lesson in Disability 101. More ironic is the fact that, because this novel is so good, they won't even be aware of being educated. That's the beauty of When I Fall In Love.
And what an education it is! Dart covers all the bases, weaving disability awareness into her narrative so seamlessly that it really moves the plot along rather than bogging it down in political correctness. Dart doesn't miss a beat in showing her readers the nitty gritty of daily life with a disability. It's all here -- the transition from the nondisabled world, the social discrimination, the political power of the movement, and some very funny insider lines and incidents that will make those of us who live it howl with laughter.
Anyone familiar withthe romance genre will not be surprised to discover that Cupid and his arrows play a prominent role in the book. Engaged to an nondisabled man, Lily is initially repulsed by Charlie, her new boss. His CP and his "take no prisoners" attitude in dealing with most issues around it are as foreign to her as the territory she explores when Bryan later becomes paraplegic. But as Charlie becomes Lily's mentor in disability, two things happen: he begins to display a very true vulnerability and humanity, and, romance being romance, they fall in love. Romance novels being romance novels, it takes more than a few pages for Lily and Charlie to finally get together. The ending might be predictable, but who cares? Reading this book is fun!
Even so, there are a few worms that mar this apple. One is Dart's sense of timing. Six weeks after his accident, Bryan frolics at a pool party and even gets a good-natured dunking. I don't think so. Even given managed care, this is a speedy rehab.
Two other worms bothered me more: Charlie's sister, during a heart-to- heart with Lily, points out that Charlie can have children since CP isn't genetic. Do remarks like that raise your hackles as much as they raise mine? OK, it's a very isolated remark in a 345-page book, but Ragged Edge pays me to be picky. So, when Lily and Charlie do finally tie the knot and have a child, I'm annoyed when Dart calls the infant "healthy" -- it's a euphemism for nondisabled. While it might have strained credibility to have three disabled family members, I still find the implications of that comment a little troubling.
Or maybe I'm just too hot and need to find a bit more shade and pour another cold drink. For when all is said and done, I really loved this book and all the obvious work and awareness Dart put into it. You will, too -- even in the dog days of summer.