Heart And Soul
by Sally Mandel, contemporary (2003)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-000914-4


Heart And Soul's biggest flaw is that it is too short. I want it to be longer because I'm selfish and I want this book to go on a little longer. Also, I need it to be longer because there are too many issues that aren't dwelled deep enough to make this book truly work. Still, this book makes me feel and even cry towards the end. I haven't had a book do that to me in quite some time now, and I cherish every laughter, tear, and sigh Sally Mandel draws from me with her every word. That's why this book is on my keeper shelf.

Bess Stallone is telling this story. Her story is not a cheerful one, but her warm and sometimes crude sense of humor and her strength - tampered with irreverence - makes this story really uplifting to me. She tells of how she grows up from a girl destined to be stuck in boring Rocky Beach, Long Island, a piano prodigy living among people who don't understand her. She is discovered by the kooky music teacher, gets admitted to Juilliard, and catches the eye of the piano superstar David Montagnier, who also happens to be looking for a partner. Complicating her relationship with David is Jake, her best buddy from childhood (he lost his virginity to her - not the other way around - but they later decided they are better off friends), who has always carried a torch for her. Then there are Bess' parents whom Bess has a very real love/hate relationship with. There's her sister Angie whose resentment at her parents unknowingly dooming her into a life she wants so badly to escape can make more than a few readers relate to her, I'm sure. But the biggest hurdle to Bess' happily ever after is David himself.

I don't want to go into too much detail and spoil the enjoyment of discovery for anybody who wants to pick up this book, but this book is like a dream. Bess' antagonism with her father even though she loves that selfish, hateful, adorable, charming man is so real that I have to check and see if Ms Mandel has stolen some of my teenaged-year-journals from my storage room when I was not looking. (I really must burn those things one day.) Likewise, Bess' mother discovering independence from her husband isn't touched deep enough, but nonetheless it's still a joy to read. Angie, the sister, is blunt and almost Daria-like, minus the relentless cynicism.

But the star is Bess. Strong, funny, witty, and vulnerable all at once, from her tendency to black out during public performances (phobia, you know) to her cheerfully libidinous nature to her getting down to her underwear as she, totally drunk, played with abandon the piano at the pub, this story is all about her. Compared to her, both men are rather too perfect to be real. Actually, I get flashbacks to VC Andrews' Petals In The Wind while reading this book, although Heart And Soul is firmly rooted to earth while that VC Andrews book is... er, never mind. In a way, David is like Julian the unstable artist - he's glorious, beautiful, and when he sweeps Bess into passion, she forgets common sense. But eventually he's more heartbreak than heaven. Jake is like Christopher - minus the over-the-top obsessive devotion, keyword here being over-the-top - he's reliable, too gallant (Jake's a conservationist), sensitive, gorgeous, light to everything dark about David. Bess is a more sane, intelligent, and kinder heroine that Petals In The Wind's Catherine can ever be, but Bess like Catherine face similar choices: darkly magnetic romance or the more steady and placid type?

Heart And Soul breezes over David's background until the last few chapters, where the secrets of his life then bombard me relentlessly like a rushed job train to Deadline Station. Jake is nondescript, although the very niceness of his nature really appeals to me. Nonetheless, the author infuses Bess with a really coherent and vivid personality and voice that charm me into loving this lady from the first word of the story. I am there with her as she deals with happiness, heartbreak, everything, and I cry with her when she's at her lowest even as I cheer her on (and wipe away some happy tears) as she keeps her chin high through it all, all the way to her happy ending.

What the heck, every woman deserves to get her heart broken with cheerful abandon at least once by loving a gloriously bad bad bad boy, and in this, Bess Stallone, you are my heroine. I salute you. And Heart And Soul, aye, this is one fabulous book to read. It's romantic, the way romance can be when a heroine dares to live and experiences passion on her own terms and with all her heart, and it's both sweet and bitter all at once. Just the way I like my books, really.

If you find the current romance novels too formulaic and you are looking for some romantic stories, hey, take a look at this one. It glides with one foot on the ground - nothing too depressing for the sake of "credibility" here (nobody falls in love and then suddenly dies, that is) - but at the same time, without having to be forced into the "virgin, martyr, in trouble, penniless" mould, Bess Stallone falls in love and seems to take wings as a result.

Rating: 92


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