Picks and Pans Review: Dying Young

updated 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Marti Leimbach

Dying Young is an extraordinary accomplishment, a first novel whose flaws show only because there are so few of them.

It is about a young man who is dying of leukemia and the life he shares with his caretaker-turned-lover in a sleepy town on the Massachusetts coast.

Leimbach, 26, writes vividly and avoids clichés. So Dying Young is never depressing nor melodramatic even if it is a tearjerker. (In the emotion department, it ranks with such sentimental works as Love Story and Terms of Endearment.)

In fact the terminally ill Victor Geddes, 33, who has battled his disease for 14 years, is so snide he's often not a sympathetic character. In discussing the effect his illness has on other people, Victor says, "They get rather taken aback when they ask you what you are planning to do for your summer vacation and you say, 'Get buried.' "

Victor is also mean, even violent, with his girlfriend, Hilary, the book's narrator. Their life is steeped in emotional turmoil too, and Hilary finds comfort in her friendship and eventual romance with the handsome, hardy businessman Gordon, whom she calls "a marvel of normality."

While the ensuing love triangle thickens the novel's plot, Dying Young is really about Hilary's inner life and the way she sees herself through Victor, whose imminent death is the only thing she's sure of.

Victor is from a wealthy Boston family, while Hilary is a lower-middle-class woman who has floundered in a series of odd jobs. Once a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at a prestigious university, Victor is confounded by Hilary's preference for books about UFO sightings over works by Nietzsche.

Leimbach's prose keeps the interior monologue running vigorously. In a launderette, Hilary figures, "I appear not as a woman whose last hour has been spent huddling inside the cold shell of a car but as one who takes seriously the consequence of separating colors.... I wait for the dryer to finish. I watch the gentle tossing of Victor's boxer shorts, my turtle-neck, his black socks, my yellow ones. I think, How can I consider leaving a man while his clothes are drying in such an intimate manner with my own?"

It's disappointing on those rare occasions when a character blurts out an unlikely Harlequin romances line such as "I can barely stand it. I want you so much."

Otherwise, whether she's writing about the sinking of a ferry, injecting morphine or sorting out a tangle of cords and toaster ovens on the floor of the couple's apartment, Leimbach has produced in Dying Young a masterpiece of details that always rings true, with the sad, funny and fascinating unpredictability of real life. (Doubleday, $17.95)

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