Blair and her daughter, Amanda, live contentedly in a tiny, funky cottage in San Francisco's Haight district. Blair loves her job as a chef and is close to 16-year-old Amanda. But Blair is dying. As the story opens, she has just received a devastating diagnosis of advanced melanoma. There is no cure; she won't survive long. Blair is using sex, alcohol, drugs, movies and work to distract herself from her inevitable death and her concern for Amanda's future.
Luke is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter. His perfect life is destroyed when his adored wife, Emily, abruptly walks out on him. Unable to write, he moves from his San Francisco home to a secluded mountain cabin to read and build furniture. Luke's dog, Sweetpea, is his companion, providing comic relief and company. No matter what Luke is doing, though, he obsesses about and yearns for Emily. Where is she? Why did she leave?
When Luke discovers what appears to be evidence that Emily was involved in an affair, he leaves his mountain hideout to find her. He questions her sister and then goes undercover to pinpoint Emily's location. When Luke finds what he believes to be her residence, he spends hours sitting in his car and staring at the mystery house. Luke is haunted by the ghost of his marriage and eaten up by his imaginings of Emily with another man. If she would only come home to him, he believes he could be whole again.
Blair and Luke's lives intersect when Luke is asked to contact classmates for their 25th high school reunion. She remembers him as a golden boy; he vaguely recalls her as being a silent, loner hippie. The two meet --- and are instantly, magnetically attracted to each other. Luke is willing, but Blair squelches the notion:
"On a night like this, I could fall in love."
"Don't bother," Blair said. "I'm dying."
Blair and Luke's relationship is a constant struggle against extreme odds. Their impediments are enormous: Blair's fatal illness, Amanda's resentment toward the interloper in her mother's life, and the reappearance of Emily with startling news and intentions. Blair also discovers that Luke has seemingly used a violent tragedy she suffered as a teenager to his own professional advantage.
In less able hands, this plot crammed full of dramatic climaxes and relationship crises might cross over into melodrama. However, author Ellen Sussman creates such a valid world, peopled with genuine characters, that it simply feels like a privileged peek into Blair and Luke's chaotic, tragic reality. Setting is also masterfully portrayed in this book; Sussman's descriptions of San Francisco's Haight area, mountains, seashore and city are lovingly vivid. I believed in and cared about every word. In fact, I devoured this book in two greedy sittings (and was rather miffed that Real Life forced me to take the one intermission!).
I highly recommend ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS for its heartbreakingly vulnerable and flawed characters living in a world where true love, which is never easy, is worth a Herculean struggle.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 13, 2011
On a Night Like This