Reading Backwards

Book reviews by your favorite Git.

If Only It Were True

with one comment

By Marc Levy
I wouldn’t bother, but it’s
Rating: Disappointing
June 2006

A quaint little bestseller from 2001 about love that transcends (near) death. A 2005 chick flick starring Reese Witherspoon.

The movie was better. It was much more real. That says a lot about the book.

It was passed on to me by mother, who got it from a family friend. They had both read it, quite liked it, and thought I would, too. It has sat on my shelf for so long that the pages are yellowed, and I know why. When it first entered my hands and I heard the concept I thought, “That’s interesting…” but somehow knew that the book was not quite up to par. I was right.

It’s a pity, because IOIWT has all the pieces of a good romance/chick lit. It’s set in beautiful San Francisco. The heroine is an educated doctor-in-training who puts in long hours and is capable of biting reparte. The hero is an architect who believes in seizing the opportunity to change someone else’s life for the better. They must work together to save her from a tragic situation–that isn’t contrived by some lackluster villain. Score, right? Alas.

As mentioned, Lauren is a resident at a local ER and a workaholic. She finally gets a weekend off to visit with friends, but on the way she has a car accident and is plunged into a deep coma. Some months later, her family sublets her apartment to Arthur, an architect looking for a place to live now that his last serious relationship has ended. It is a beautiful apartment, decorated just so.

As Arthur is taking a shower, he hears an odd noise… and finds a woman sitting on the floor of the cupboard.

Arthur is the only person who can see Lauren. At first she has trouble convincing him that she is not crazy and neither is he, and begs him to believe her. Arthur slowly comes around and then throws himself wholeheartedly into the quest to put Lauren back into her body–before her family decides that she will never wake up and takes her off life support.

It should be a tender, humorous little tale. Instead it is preachy, awkward, and clumsily handled. Some of this is due to the fact that Levy wrote the original in French; it was a bestseller in France that was snapped up for the US market due (no doubt) to its location.

The Publishers Weekly review on sums it up nicely:

It’s an interesting study in the difference between a movie concept and a novel. One can imagine it as an offbeat romantic comedy on the screen, with charismatic actors and some nifty special effects, but as a book it’s slight and one-dimensional–and it doesn’t help that Levy has no ear whatsoever for American speech patterns. The gimmick at the heart of the story is a mixture of the movie notion of “meeting cute” and the Invisible Man tradition. … After initially rejecting her explanation, Arthur begins to fall for Lauren, and determines that he must remove her comatose body from the hospital before her grieving mother can bring herself to cut off her life support. Helped by his skeptical business partner, Arthur accomplishes this with a borrowed ambulance and Lauren’s knowledge of how the hospital works. Then the “body,” along with the attendant invisible Lauren, is spirited away to the Carmel hideaway Arthur has kept since his beloved mother’s death from cancer. (Life with mother is rendered in a series of saccharine scenes that would embarrass a maker of life insurance commercials.) George Pilger, one of the most improbable American police inspector ever to grace the pages of a novel, gets onto Arthur’s escapade and goes down to Carmel to confront him. Will Arthur be arrested? Will Lauren die? In a gentle fable like this, there can be no real surprises. What is surprising is that so slender a tale, which actually reads more like a draft of a screenplay, should have appeared as an (almost) full-length book.

Lets address some of the problems with this novel.

1. Awkward speech.
Levy did apparently live in San Francisco for a number of years, but he clearly did not pick up the rhythm of American speech patterns (and if the French prevaricate like this, then I’m glad I’m not French). Everyone makes speeches. There is very little back and forth–especially because Levy will chop out the actual speech and just summarize it. The result is completely disjointing and removes all immediacy.

Her face fell. “Right now you’re telling yourself you have a totally unbalanced girl on your hands… and I guess I never stood a chance, did I?”
He asked her to put herself in his place. What would her first reaction be if she discovered a man hiding in her bathroom closet-a somewhat overwrought man, whose explanation was that he was some kind of ghost whose body was was in a coma? Her features relaxed and she smiled a little.
She had to admit that her first reaction would be to scream. She granted him that the circumstances were bizarre. –pg 38

It’s unnatural and bothered me from the word ‘go.’

2. Preachy.
Remember how I said that everyone makes speeches? There’s almost no ‘small talk.’ Everything is about this life and death stuff, so Lauren and Arthur are always saying everything at once. Even the cops at the end (who come out of nowhere) like to pontificate. Banter and normal conversation are nonexistant.

3. Poor pacing. It begins with Lauren, the first chapter being entirely about her and her life with no sign of what’s to come, making it feel like a loose thread. The accident occurs in the second chapter and she is rushed off to the hospital.

In the course of a single night, Arthur chooses to believe Lauren, and to put his entire life on hold to help her. Yes, everything. He goes on leave from work for the next month (he’s a part owner in the company, but still) and prints out over a hundred pages(!!!) worth of material on comas. That is a fast turnaround.

But the worst offense is the last third of the book. After Arthur and Lauren remove her body from the hospital so that it can’t be taken off life support, Levy completely switches tack and we find ourselves following… the most bizarre cop evarr.

He’s going to retire in a few weeks, and having spent 30 years on the force, this Pilger character must be in his 50s. He’s also sleeping with his beautiful young, well-endowed partner–who has no trouble accepting the situation. Banter flourishes here–to the opposite extreme. Very seriously work is interrupted with silly comments. I suspect that Levy’s entire purpose for Pilger is to show the reader that, yes, it would’ve been possible for the cops to find Arthur. And that was rather interesting, seeing how they put the clues together. But he never even stopped to check the fake forms Arthur gave to the hospital staff for forensic evidence. (FINGERPRINTS-!! And printers, and… AUGH!)

Then, guess what? When Arthur has to tell Pilger the truth, Pilger also decides “Well, you don’t sound like a crazy man, so I’m gonna believe you and help you.”


4. Inconsistent. This is a big one for me. And most of these mistakes should never have happened, because a man twice my age should have seen way more movies about ghosts and such and should have been aware of them.

First of all, Lauren’s abilities to move and interact with objects. She has no problem with the floor, or sitting in a car (!) but cannot move objects. She gains some force as time goes on (shouldn’t it have weakened? Or was love sustaining her?) but manages to keep Arthur from noticing this. They can make love but she still can’t make him breakfast. She never really experiments with the boundaries of the world (she can sort of ‘pop’ from one place to the next but doesn’t do much going through walls) and so I’m left with a lot of questions. The best I can come up with is that really conventional things like floors are taken for granted, so she never questioned them enough to try.

There were also a lot of other minor inconsistencies sprinkled throughout. I don’t take notes when I read for pleasure, so I don’t have examples. Nya

5. ‘Convenient’ circumstances. The death of any novel, and particularly romances. It just so happens that Arthur’s mother was a French poet, and single mother, who miraculously had enough money to hold onto a beautiful estate home, keep it populated with rare roses, provide for Arthur to go to boarding school and college, and leave him lovely notes all about. She’s also dead (no, for real this time), and cancer mysteriously did not chew up all their funds. So this large empty house near Mendocino is conveniently waiting for Arthur to take Lauren’s body to when they snatch it from the hospital. That’s stretching the fantasy just a little bit too far.

Also, when they’re pulling off the great escape, an intern mistakes Arthur for a real doctor. Lauren guides him through the necessar diagnosis and procedure–which requires an incision into a man’s chest–and the nurse is so very impressed with his skill and dexterity that she assumes he really is the famed cardiologist whose labcoat he stole. Nothing prior to this has indicated that Arthur may be exceptionally deft with his hands and he is, of course, worse than terrified. So what gives, huh?

When it all comes down to it, I’m just disappointed. I really had hoped for better.

The good news is that the movie, which was titled Just Like Heaven, was basically rewritten. Everyone gets new names, for a start. Lauren/Elizabeth doesn’t know she’s in a coma and spends the first few days ragging on Arthur/Dave to get out of her apartment, and then to stop messing it up. It’s funny and follows a much more realistic line of events. There are secondary characters who bring extra life and warmth to it. (Ok, the skank downstairs was kinda pandering. But Elizabeth’s snark made it all worth it.) Mark Ruffalo’s acting is great, and Reese Witherspoon pulls of catty, worried bitch very nicely.

So don’t bother with the book. Treat yourself to some chick flicky joy instead. It’s much more rewarding.


Written by Shen

June 15, 2006 at 5:46 pm

One Response

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  1. That’s to bad Reese is getting a divorce.

    mr skin

    October 31, 2006 at 9:34 pm

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